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Bad Altitude - Chapter 7 (posted on: 07-04-06)


CHAPTER 7 Funnily enough, when I re-entered the galley, the mother of all grins was splashed across my face. Brian was sitting alone, reading FHM, and he looked up straight away when I swished through the curtain. ''Bloody hell,'' he exclaimed, ''What's with you? You look like the cat that's got the cream.'' ''Well, my friend,'' I gloated, ''you could say that not only do I have the cream, but also that I have a better than average chance of depositing it somewhere later on.'' ''What you talking about?'' he asked, sensing some juicy gossip. ''You know the two girls sat in row 37?'' ''You mean the one in the short skirt, and the one with big tits?'' ''Well the one in the miniskirt…'' I let that hang in the air for a few agonising seconds, ''…just snogged my face off at the back.'' ''You are full of shite! No way.'' ''Totally, utterly, one hundred percent way, mate,'' I said earnestly, ''and do you want the good news and the better than good news?'' ''Get lost. If that's true, then what's better? She suck you off in the bog, or something?'' ''Ha! No, the good news is that these two honeys are staying in our hotel…'' I smiled as Brian went through the same reactions as I had earlier on, and then hit him with the clincher, ''…and the better than good – no, scratch that – the abso-fucking-lutely fantastic news is that they intend to dump the boyfriends and meet us for a drink.'' This took a few seconds to sink in, but when it eventually did Brian's face perked up as if he'd just had fifty thousand volts up his jacksie. ''You…are…joking,'' he murmured, the look of astonishment still in place, ''they're defo coming out?'' I nodded. ''On their own – no fellas?'' ''Yep,'' was all I said in reply, because really that was all that could be said. Not counting the gay guys who can pull in a vacuum, scoring with passengers is such a rare enough occurrence that when the chance arises, even though it is against company policy, it must be grasped with both hands. If all went well then Brian and I were going to be pulling off a double whammy. A place in the history books would be assured! ''That's ace,'' he said, jumping up and instantly flinching as the crew seat snapped back to its stowed position with a bang, ''shit…anyway, you reckon her mate's up for it?'' ''Well, to be honest mate,'' I replied, deciding to wind him up, ''she's got a face like a bag o' spanners so there's a fair to middling chance that she'll put out for anyone who isn't repulsed when they first meet her.'' ''Hey! She's not that bad,'' said Brian, partly out of defence for the lady, but mainly striving to convince himself, ''and anyway, she's got a great body on her – I'd just have to do her from behind.'' ''Do what from behind?'' queried Karen, who, with flawless timing, had once again walked in on Brian during one of his misogynist moments. ''…'' said Brian, whose brain had clocked out by now, as he tried to think of some – any – form of non-sexual explanation for what she had heard. He may as well have tried teaching her that wearing a jumper around the house, instead of raising the thermostat temperature to just below that of the sun's surface, might mean more cash for the nicer things in life – like food. In the end he was forced to admit defeat, and with a mumbled 'bollocks', he turned and left. Unsatisfied (in so many ways!) Karen looked to me for enlightenment, but there was absolutely no way I was going there because the alternatives that I could come up with were inexorably linked with the original subject – only the point of entry varied. ''I'm sorry, Karen,'' I said, having decided that the truth should never out, ''he was just telling me a rather disgusting story that he heard on his last trip. We didn't mean for you to hear.'' ''Oh…right,'' was the unsure reply, although the lie was close enough to the truth that she eventually accepted it, ''would you like another coffee?'' I glanced at my watch – only five minutes before my break started – and politely declined. The chances of catching even a few minutes snooze if I'd just downed another cup of caffeine would be practically zero. Instead I picked up a tray of juice and water with the intention of offering them to anyone who was awake. When Trisha returned from her break, she would be less inclined to believe we had sat on our arses doing nothing if a couple of punters had glasses in their hands. Karen went to pick up the other tray, but I motioned for her to stay sitting down, as there were hardly any people awake. She smiled her thanks and picked up Brian's discarded magazine, putting it straight down again as she noticed the big-breasted lovely on the front cover. Slowly moving down the aisle, checking for the telltale glint of eyes that would signify a person who was no longer dozing, I managed to hand out nearly a dozen juices, which would probably suffice. Mandy and Jenny were finally asleep, and I was pleased to note that they had put the vodka out of sight, and the empty juice containers into a plastic bag. Mandy had her arms crossed, in contrast to Jen, who didn't – I made another mental note to have the cabin temperature increased a little – and her head slightly back, her pink glossed lips slightly apart to reveal the perfect, brilliant white teeth behind. In common with a lot of girls, she looked incredibly cute when she was sleeping; something alien to the world of men, who either spend their nap time snoring whilst exhibiting a Nicholsonesque sneer, or releasing an immeasurable amount of noxious gases. Just then, a movement caught my eye and I looked over and saw Jane walking back towards the front of the aircraft. She waved, stifling a yawn at the same time, and had clearly used one of the bunks. Her hair had wisps sticking up at all angles, and her uniform blouse had a mosaic pattern on its left sleeve. No doubt she would have the beginnings of morning breath too, and the priority now was to get to a toilet and freshen up before anyone tried to talk to her. The others trickled slowly from the rest area, the time taken to return dependent on their state of undress at wake-up time. Clearing some empties on the way, I headed back to the galley. Trisha came in from the opposite aisle at the same time, immediately scanning for anything she could criticize. The surfaces were all clean and free of debris, there were no call lights in the cabin, and Karen had even brewed fresh tea and coffee, so for now Trisha had nothing to complain about. I was sure there would be something by the time we returned from our break. She was probably pissed off as well because, with only herself and David on duty now, the pair of them would have to set up all the second service trolleys on their own. Taking out the trolleys, and putting juices on top as well as tea and coffee would cost her ten minutes of celebrity browsing, but the Economy Supervisor always gets first break, so it was tough shit. Can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined, and so on. Serving the passengers a second meal, albeit only a snack, only two hours after the main service seems (and, in fact, is) excessive. However, once you get past the fact that, between all the airlines, the seats are somewhat similar – ditto the legroom, entertainment, storage space, the inevitable long wait to check-in, and the longer wait at the other end before you are finally informed that your bags didn't travel with you, nor will they for the next three days, even though there are six daily flights – it becomes readily apparent that the only way an individual carrier can make a difference is in the quantity of catering it offers. Type and quality are all the same as well because all the companies have sub-contracted out to one big supplier – only the colour of the assorted bits of plastic varies. And the greedy bastards eat it all. At home, if offered a snack a couple of hours after a dinner, most people, i.e. those who don't list 'comfort eating' as a hobby, would decline. Put them on an aeroplane though, and they feel the need to squeeze every last penny out of their ticket. ''Any problems?'' Trisha asked Karen, even though she was junior to Brian and myself, and therefore making blatantly clear her opinion of our stewarding skills. ''No,'' she replied, ''we've done a couple of juice rounds, but just about everyone's asleep.'' ''What about those students who were drinking a lot?'' Oh-oh. ''They were no problem,'' Karen said, ''the two lads were asleep just after you went on their break, and Mike just took the girls a couple of orange juices.'' Trisha raised her eyebrows at that, giving me the distinct impression that I was about to be dropped into the shit. ''Didn't they buy a bottle of vodka from you Brian?'' she asked. ''Er… not sure,'' he said, uneasily. ''It might've been them.'' Bugger. ''So, Michael,'' Trisha said, looking at me with a stern expression, ''after I expressly forbade you to serve them any more alcohol, you went ahead and gave them mixers for their duty-free.'' ''I didn't know,'' I replied weakly, the shock of being so easily busted not lending itself to my sincerity. ''They wanted orange, and so I took them some.'' ''You two go on your break,'' she said to my galley-mates. Brian and Karen couldn't get out fast enough and David had conveniently vanished into a toilet, but I was at least grateful to Karen for not mentioning the extra orange and the glasses of ice. That information would have branded me as an accessory, not just the naïve fool that I was pretending to be. I looked at my watch, attempting to convey to Trisha that she had already burned up over five minutes of my rest, but the gesture was ignored. ''Well, Michael,'' she declared, ''I'm sure you are aware that it is illegal for passengers to consume any duty-free alcohol whilst they are on board the aeroplane.'' I nodded, but kept quiet. There was more to come; that was for sure. ''You must have known why they were asking for juice. In fact, given your reputation, I would not be at all surprised if you encouraged them.'' ''Honestly, Trisha,'' I said, with my nose growing longer every second, ''I didn't know.'' ''I do not believe you,'' she paused. ''Right. You wait here and cover the galley while I freshen up, and then you can go on your break. I will be informing Tony of this incident as soon as he is back.'' Shit. Shit. Shit. My mind was racing as she locked herself in the toilet. With the animosity that Tony felt towards me this could very easily be blown out of proportion by the time it reached the office in London, especially if they witnessed Mandy's half-empty bottle of… shit! Move! I darted across the galley to Brian's duty-free bar, which he had mercifully left unlocked – very trusting for a Scouser. Pulling open the bottom drawer, I was relieved to see an unopened bottle of vodka staring back at me. I snatched it and practically ran into the cabin. Dropping to my knees next to Mandy's seat, I shook her – remarkably gently under the circumstances. She slowly stirred and looked down to see my harried expression. Still in the process of waking up, she just smiled at me and quietly said hello. ''Give me your bottle of vodka,'' I whispered. ''Wh…what?'' she slurred. ''Look, I've been rumbled. I need to give you this full bottle, get rid of the old one, and you definitely didn't drink any of your duty-free, OK?'' ''Er…OK. Here you go,'' she replied, awake now and reaching for her bag. I pushed the fresh Smirnoff into her bag, grabbed the open one, and almost as an afterthought, gave her a kiss full on the lips, before scampering back. In the galley I threw the bottle into the trash compactor, ripped off a large amount of the kitchen roll and chucked it on top, before closing the door and pressing the start button. I had just managed to stand up and force an air of nonchalance, when Trisha appeared. ''All right, Michael,'' she said, her tone of voice betraying the glee she felt at catching me out, ''you may go now. We will discuss the other matter with Tony when you return.'' ''Thanks, Trisha,'' I said, ''see you later.'' With that, I picked up a small bottle of water and went for my break, leaving the compactor making loud cracking noises, and Trisha wondering why I had a smile on my face. It was Brian who shook me awake. Having sat in one of the downstairs rest seats, it must have been only a couple of minutes before I dropped off. It was nice to have had a little nap, but the drawback was that I now felt worse than when I had first closed my eyes, a state that would remain at least until the end of my first coffee, if not to the dregs of my first pint. ''C'mon you lazy bastard,'' Brian said. ''Get up before Trisha gets another reason to have you.'' ''All right, all right,'' I replied, still hoarse with sleep, and suddenly remembering what I'd done before my break. ''Oh yeah, I owe you for a bottle of voddy by the way.'' ''Why?'' he asked, screwing his face up in puzzlement. ''Well I figured that if the two girls had a full bottle and denied the incident, then Trisha and the fat twat wouldn't have anything on me.'' ''Good thinking, mate. What did you do with the other bottle?'' ''Trash compactor, covered in loads of kitchen roll.'' ''Ace. That Trisha's gonna have kittens when she finds out they've got a full one.'' ''You got an obsession with cats, mate?'' I asked. ''What? Er, no,'' he answered. ''Just pussies.'' There was no answer to that. I stood up, tucked my shirt back in and reattached my tie, then motioned for him to go in front of me. The cabin lights had by now been turned up to full, and most of the passengers were awake. Mandy gave me a little wave and a thumbs up as I went past on the opposite side, which went wholly unnoticed by Scruffy who was still dead to the world. Brian smiled at Jenny, who beamed back – maybe, I thought, there would be a double helping of luck tonight, after all. Rather than waste time brushing my teeth, I simply popped a Listerine strip in my mouth to counteract the stale coffee breath that I could taste. For a brief time, whilst the little wafer dissolved, the only sensation was one similar to getting a piece of Sellotape stuck on the tongue, to be rapidly replaced by an intense burning as the chemicals got to work. Breathing through my mouth quickly helped this to subside, and I was once again ready to meet my public. These things are great in my opinion, although they have become the Gold Spot of the new millennium. Instead of squirting a little bit of minty freshness from a little aerosol before telling some unlucky girl to get her coat because she's pulled, today's discerning lounge lizard just pops a wafer-thin antiseptic strip into his mouth. Trisha was waiting for me, fidgeting uncomfortably and unable to look me directly in the eye. Eventually she brought herself to speak to me. ''Erm. That is to say I… erm, look Michael, it would seem that I owe you an apology. I am sorry for accusing you earlier on. There, I've said it. Now take your trolley out please.'' And that was it – no explanation, no nothing. Obviously she had conducted an interrogation as soon as she had noticed that Mandy had woken up. With her testimony that no illicit drinking had gone on, backed up by the 'irrefutable' evidence in the form of a sealed bottle of vodka, I was way in the clear. Only if Trisha suspected foul play and checked the stock in Brian's duty-free bar could I be implicated again, but that was as likely as Tony winning 'weight-watcher of the year'. I was guessing that Trisha had been a Supervisor for more than just a few years, so it would be even longer since she had had responsibility for a bar over and above signing off 'missing' items. The chances of her even thinking to check were, unlike Tony, very slim. My relief was tangible – had Trisha not gone to the toilet before sending me on my break, then I wouldn't have been able to make the switch, and I'd now be looking at a disciplinary, if not worse. It was ironic really – in making me wait to go on my rest as punishment, she had inadvertently provided me with the golden opportunity to clear my name. See you around, loser! Acknowledging her apology with scarcely a nod, I once more clicked off the brake, and manoeuvred my trolley into the aisle. The snacks consisted of sandwiches wrapped in plastic, and an unidentifiable cake thing. In succession, each passenger accepted a tray, some with a pained expression that suggested they were still too full to eat, but to turn it down was not an option. I wasn't surprised that the old lady who so eagerly awaited that cup of coffee had switched her allegiance to tea, but I didn't stick around after pouring it. The water does even worse things to tealeaves than it does to instant coffee. Mandy and Jenny both went against the grain and refused a tray, opting instead for a cup of coffee each. I had parked the trolley slightly to the rear of their row so that it didn't get in the way. I was in the process of filling a cup each on the trolley top when, out of the blue, I became aware of a very pleasant tickling in the region of my groin. Slowly, so as not to draw attention, I looked down. Mandy was leaning slightly out into the aisle, with her elbow on the armrest and her head cradled in her hand. However, it appeared that support wasn't the only job she had in mind for this hand. Unseen by anyone else, Mandy's little finger was softly tracing a circular pattern on the fabric of my trousers, barely three inches from becoming a sexual harassment suit. This was starting to present me with an increasingly large problem because, although I was able to give the two girls their coffees without stepping away from the protection that the trolley afforded, I would have to lean over in order to serve anybody in a window seat. The upshot of this would be the aisle seat passenger's face being level with my beltline – eye to Jap's eye, so to speak. ''Stop it,'' I whispered, trying to bend away from her hand without exposing myself to the rest of the punters. Mandy looked at the bulge that was now manifestly apparent, raising her eyebrows and coquettishly biting her lower lip at the same time, which just made things worse. Now, I don't have porn star proportions in my trousers at all, but on the other hand, neither am I in danger of being named 'Justin', and the cut of the uniform is such that this sort of indiscretion is made easily visible. I wasn't hurting my chances with Mandy at all, but conversely I was stuffed when it came to finishing off the service. Short of rushing to the privacy of the toilet to release the pressure, I didn't know what to do. I tried thinking unsexy thoughts – road accidents, rotting fish, most of Aberdeen – but to no avail; it was going nowhere. The fickle little bastard didn't stay like that the last time I pulled a girl on the downslope of ten pints of Egyptian rocket fuel. I mean, if you can't rely on the cooperation of one of your own body parts for Christ's sake, what can you rely on? After what seemed like an eternity, Mandy sat upright and stopped torturing my nerve-endings. Laughing to herself, she leant the other way to whisper something in Jenny's ear. There was no possible way of eavesdropping on this micro-conversation, but the subject became abundantly clear when Jenny scrunched forward so that Mandy's head no longer obscured the line-of-sight view to my crotch. There was another raising of eyebrows, followed by a peal of laughter, a distressingly recurrent behaviour that was causing me to reassess my standing in the 'size' league. Previously, partly from reading countless surveys on the subject, and partly from the assumption that not every girl I've been with could have been faking it, I had considered myself to be mid-table, with the occasional foray into the European places if I was particularly gagging for it, or after a brief intake of certain substances – a bit like half the Premiership in that respect. One upside of Jenny's girlish laughter was the effect it had on my straining manhood. As the law that governs that stiffness is inversely proportional to audience numbers kicked in, it was as if someone had opened a valve somewhere in my vascular system, allowing the blood to start rushing out. Sensing a reprieve, I managed to speed the process up considerably by trying to push the trolley away without releasing the brake, thereby succeeding in crushing my bits between the tray handle and my pelvic bone. The pain subsided quickly, ousted by numbness as the last of the blood drained away. Eventually, all was back to normal and I was left with the feeling of roominess down there that must be experienced by a newly released convict after months in a cramped solitary cell. Not a moment too soon, either. The remaining passengers had spent the last ten minutes enviously watching their cabin-mates receiving a snack tray and hot drink, only for me to squander several minutes rooted (in more ways than one) to the spot. The rumblings started with the people closest to the trolley – those that could almost reach out and touch it – but rapidly expanded like the blast wave of an explosion until most of the natives in my section were restless, acting as if this delay was turning into a matter of life or death. Having said that, this was by no means unusual. Not only do passengers check in most of their working brain cells with their suitcase, a vast amount pay excess baggage costs for their patience and love of their fellow man as well. The resultant sub-standard human being would crawl over their own mothers to receive a meal tray before whoever is sitting next to them. On a full flight this often leads to scenes reminiscent of a nest full of infant birds, with every one trying to strain their neck just that little higher than the remaining siblings in order to secure just a little bit more regurgitated food than the rest. This is not a damning indictment of the catering, more a groundless social commentary that, nonetheless, does seem to back up the theory that civilisation is only three square meals away from anarchy. Serving the row behind Mandy's, it occurred to me that, once again, the pretty girl paranoia hadn't surfaced. The reason was pretty obvious, too. Mandy hadn't even given me the chance to consider getting a knock back. Either she was the biggest prick tease currently walking the planet, or I was being gifted a cast iron, set-in-stone, sure thing that night; a thought that couldn't possibly have chosen a more inopportune moment to surface because, almost immediately, the stirrings began again. I would like to point out that I fought it all the way from inception, trying as hard as possible not to clench any muscle that would trap more blood than was already accumulating, and mentally slapping myself for even thinking the word 'hard' under the circumstances. However, what with the scent of Mandy's perfume still pervading the air, the fact that I had only recently woken up, and the already touched upon lack of non-solo sexual encounters over the preceding month and a half, the valiant effort was doomed to failure. For the second time in as many minutes, I was stuck to the end of the trolley as if attracted by an invisible force. By a stroke (poor use of word again) of incredible luck, the wannabe upgrades were the next to get a tray. Although the lady had to stretch a little further than before to reach hers, I was able to pass it to her without moving my lower half too much. ''Can I get you some tea or coffee?'' I asked, not surprisingly distracted. ''Decaf,'' said the man, as I had hoped. I was far too grateful for the opportunity to hide in the galley for a bit to even think about his abruptness. ''Certainly, sir,'' I enthused, and practically ran back, looking like a sprinter striving for the finish tape. Trisha was sitting on the crew seat on the opposite side of the galley, trying to do a crossword, and I thanked whoever was up there that looking in the drawer containing the decaf sachets meant facing away from her – I didn't want her getting any ideas. As I searched amongst sweeteners, creamers and other miscellaneous items, the particularly unpleasant vision of Trisha at my hotel door in her underwear, claiming to have locked herself out of her room flitted into my head. As well as turning my stomach, this product of an overactive imagination returned all systems back to normal within seconds, and I kicked myself for not thinking of it before. Armed with two steaming cups of coffee I returned to the American couple, considerably straighter – and, of course, less straight – than had been the case when I bolted. It took me only another five or so minutes to dish out the rest of the trays, helped considerably by unrestricted movement on my part, and no more requests for unleaded coffee. Of course, by the time I hauled the trolley back, the other three were well finished and almost about to start clearing in. Trisha was still smarting about the apology she was compelled to make, and wasn't about to pass up a chance to get me back. ''Why were you so long?'' she asked, apparently even angrier for having to get off her arse. ''I had to come back for some decaf – you saw me,'' I countered, not adding in exactly what respect I had seen her. ''You should have rung the call bell. You did last time.'' ''I didn't know if anyone was in here,'' I said. ''I've been here all the…'' she stopped short, realising that an admission of doing bugger all for the entirety of the flight was probably not advisable in this case, ''… well, never mind. Refill your pots and go and clear in.'' Even though I had fresh pots on top of the trolley, only a couple of people requested seconds. This didn't surprise me at all – with two services within a couple of hours and very little water, there was every possibility that half of them were already cultivating a decent set of gallstones. Taking Mandy and Jenny's cups, I leant over and whispered in her ear. ''Are you still on for tonight?'' ''Oh yes,'' she said, ''and bring your mate as well.'' ''Brian,'' I asked, ''the Scouser?'' ''Yes. Jenny here,'' she inclined her head, ''has taken quite a shine to him.'' I looked over to Jenny, who was nodding her head vigorously. I remembered that she had been sitting on Brian's side for some of the flight, so she would have had a chance to chat to him during the service. ''Well,'' I said, ''at least one of us is in there tonight.'' In response to that, Mandy punched me in the thigh, giving me a dead leg – less embarrassing than the third leg she gave me the last time round, but painful all the same. ''Cheeky bastard,'' she laughed. ''I think I've made it quite clear who's getting it tonight, don't you?'' Think of Trisha. Think of Trisha. ''What if matey decides to come out as well?'' I enquired. ''Not going to happen,'' she replied. ''Him and Justin will be sleeping like babies for the rest of the night.'' ''You mean screaming every hour and shitting in their nappies?'' ''Something like that,'' she chuckled, ''although you're closer to the truth than you think.'' I didn't want to pry too deeply into Scruffy's drunken sleep disorder, and so contented myself with the assumed fact that he tended to use wardrobes for other purposes than just hanging clothes. It made me feel much better. Looking over to the other aisle, Brian was already four rows further down, and Karen was rapidly approaching me from the back. I didn't want Trisha having a go at me again, so I reached under Mandy's soft hair to gently tickle her neck and, pleased at the little shiver that induced, I pushed the brake pedal and moved on. Spurred on by the fact that Karen was getting closer and closer to my section, I cleared the rest of the trays in record time, not bothering to talk or even offer a second hot drink. This ruthless method ensured that the last tray was being forced into my trolley, just as Karen finished her bit. She stepped back and knocked her back on my trolley top, which made her jump. ''Oh sorry,'' she said, looking round, ''I didn't realise you were there. Are you done?'' ''Yep. Last one back to the galley gets the first round.'' She gave me a confused look, as if to say 'you already know I'm not coming out', then shrugged again and turned back to her trolley. As we passed Mandy I stopped, causing Karen to back into my top again. I signalled an apology as she spun around with an annoyed look on her face, and then crouched down. Obscured from view by the trolley, Mandy leant over and kissed me again, compelling me to imagine Trisha naked once more, else I might not have been able to stand up. If I wasn't careful this was going to turn into a Pavlovian reaction, with me thinking of a bloated, wrinkled, saggy body every time I got a stiffy. Not good. Eventually, Mandy pulled away, giving my tongue a little nip as it left her mouth, and could say what I had meant to in the first place. ''Listen,'' I said, licking my lips for the pleasant taste of her lipstick, ''I'm probably going to be sent back to Business Class now we've finished. If I don't see you before you get off then we'll be in the bar in the lobby.'' ''OK,'' she replied, nodding, ''thanks for a lovely flight.'' ''I can safely say that it has been more than a pleasure. Quite a few pleasures in fact.'' She giggled a little at that and I brushed my lips against hers once more before standing up. My heart rate went through the roof when I noticed that Scruffy and Justin were both now awake and demanding coffee from Brian who was on his way back to the galley as well. Luckily, Jenny had been blocking their view and they hadn't seen what Mandy and I had been up to. Brian however had been afforded a grandstand view because he was standing up. He simply shook his head as he poured their drinks, laughing quietly to himself. Scruffy noticed this and swung his head round to see why. I figured Mandy was right about him being a no-show that evening because he looked worse than I did when I woke that afternoon. ''Good morning, sir,'' I said, in as happy a voice as I could. ''Did we sleep alright?'' Scruffy grunted an unintelligible reply and went back to nursing his coffee. Seeing he was now looking away, Mandy gave me an affectionate squeeze of the leg and a wink, leaving me to return to the galley with a smile, and an agreeable feeling that all was right in the world.
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Invisible (posted on: 07-04-06)
A short submission about a typical high street occupant. Not my usual light-hearted stuff!

As the sun rises on yet another glorious summer day, the first rays silhouette a sparrow as it dives and wheels above the red-bricked high street. Shaking away the last vestige of sleep, it recommences the never-ending search for sustenance. The street below is like a playground sandpit, awaiting random tracks and deposits as the day progresses, but for now clear of the usual detritus. Suddenly, the bird banks steeply and arrows towards the ground, landing just a few inches from the lone morsel that has captured its attention. Such is the sparrow's desire to ascertain the nature of the prize, hopping to and fro while tilting its tiny head side to side, it fails to notice the being that stirs in nearby shadows. Unkempt grey fur falls around his neck, displaced by an automatic scratch of the head. With foul yellow fangs bared, he snarls at the bird, startling it into flight where it sensibly decides to carry on the search elsewhere. Satisfied that the airborne intruder into his personal space has gone for good, he searches around for something to slake his morning thirst. The dirty coloured liquid burns his throat, forcing a feral emanation that attracts uneasy glances from two shop girls raising the security shutter of a newsagent opposite. Unconcerned, he squints through overgrown, bushy hair around his eyes, scanning the pavement for precisely the same thing as the sparrow. Even though he knows better than to hope, he still suffers a wave of disappointment that the street cleaners have done their job so well. Not a scrap of food remains – not even the ubiquitous polystyrene burger box – and hunger must go unchecked until the first slovenly passer-by is kind enough to drop breakfast. A hollow wooden crash off to his right heralds the setting up of the first market stall. From his sedentary position he cranes his neck to gaze longingly as the brightly coloured fresh fruit is unloaded one box at a time from the familiar white van. In his belly, the pain of desire stabs once more, made even worse by hopelessness. Obviously the traders will endeavour to sell as much as they can, but that evening they would rather cart even the rotting produce away than leave it for a stray such as himself. Once, he had been locked in a cage with animals like that, worse than that, who would snatch his share of any meal, often hoarding it until well after the arrival of the first fly. With the sun now high enough in the sky to bathe the plate glass windows in bright light, there are more and more people on the high street. Some amble aimlessly, others march with more purpose, depending on whether they wear business suits or shop uniforms. Their reflections give the illusion of there being a greater number than is the reality, and many of these doppelgängers converge with their earthly bodies at the doors of the fast food restaurant, fifty paces away. Hands full on departure, they stroll by, ignoring him as they take the coffee and breakfast for granted just as they do the air they breathe. Instinctively, he tenses his haunches to pounce on a large piece of hash brown as it tumbles to the ground nearby. Before he can move though, it is carried away on the sole of a cheap shoe worn by a young estate agent trailing a cloud of aftershave. The congealed potato goes completely unnoticed, as does the bedraggled shape that must wait still longer to break his fast. Cursing poor luck, he wonders why he couldn't have achieved this kind of invisibility during the unprovoked beatings all those years ago. No matter how small he made himself, no matter how much he cowered in the corner of that damp room, his master always sought him out, only halting the onslaught when tiredness meant the studded belt could no longer be raised. Still, one of the few moments of satisfaction in his life had been the look on his master's face following the bite, just seconds before he escaped through the window. He had no idea how much damage had been done, only that the coppery taste of human blood had lingered long after he was too exhausted to run any further. Because the memory is so fresh in his mind and the sun so bright, he mistakes an old man with a walking stick and tweed suit for his erstwhile master. Fearing that the past has finally caught up with him, he shrinks back into the receding shadows, whimpering with fear. Unable to shed any outerwear, he sweats profusely, panting with a combination of excess heat and panic. He greedily laps more dirty liquid, trying desperately to numb his senses, but only succeeds in upping his heart rate further. Although convinced that he is calling out for help, no one comes to his aid, no one even looks his way; his wails of sorrow only make them walk faster. Eventually, like a youngster who realises that their cries of anguish are not going to be answered, he falls silent and closes his eyes against the glare. With no way to measure time, in fact with little use for such an abstract notion, he has no idea how long it is before he opens his eyes again. The sun is almost directly overhead now, and the shadows of his small haven have succumbed to the noonday light. The high street is packed, and the staccato clicks and slaps of footfalls mix tunelessly with the cajoling of market sellers, and the brief but piercing squeals of children. For want of anything better to do, he stares at a semicircular area of pavement that abuts his current shelter. Over the past few months, he has become as familiar with it as he has with… hunger? Suffering? Humiliation? Approximately three metres square, it is avoided by one and all as if protected by an invisible force. Those who drift too close tend to follow its curve, before returning to their original course. Only litter seems to penetrate, until chased by the metal claws of the Council's street cleaning squad. Sometimes these claws seem to snap more aggressively the closer they are to him, and, very occasionally, he snaps back. The green jackets always recoil in fear and revulsion, but quickly realise who is above whom on Nature's ladder. If he is lucky, the response is verbal abuse. If not, well, necessity has taught him many ways to block out pain. Looking up, he realises that his cloak of invisibility is vulnerable to more than just fleas. A toddler, whose sense of its own mortality hasn't yet outgrown its curiosity, is pulled along by its mother as it stares at him with huge blue eyes. This rare occurrence makes him feel more than a little uncomfortable, and not only because he has forgotten that children, unlike adults, see what is really there. In those eyes, he spots something else, something that he recognises but can't quite identify, because it has been decades since it resided in his own. Much less uncertain is the genuine wish that this child hold onto it several years more than he. A wicked peal of laughter pulls his head around with the violence of a tugged leash. Even before his myopic eyes begin the struggle to refocus, he knows the source. Three schoolboys, whose individual attempts at stretching the uniform code ironically achieve a different type of conformity, are staring at him. They, too, are able to see through the shield, but view him as no different from the litter strewn across the street. And just as most adults will ignore a discarded soda can, so it is impossible for an adolescent male to pass one by without first kicking it as hard as possible. Today, the persecution begins with sniggering and nudging. From his perspective, the three are giants, although unbroken voices belie their true age. Development-still-in-progress is also evident through the pure sociopathic malice that most teenagers seem to exude with little effort. Only criminals and traffic wardens manage to carry it through to adulthood. He tries to make himself smaller, pushing back into a corner of his alcove, but to no avail. The leader sucks the coating off a bright red sweet and spits the soggy peanut at him. Thinking this is hilarious, the other two follow suit and, before long, he is covered in the sticky legumes. He collects as many as he can for later, not caring if they notice. Without warning, the leader launches into a tirade against him using a language that is practically foreign. He studies the boy's exposed throat intently, overcome by the urge to tear it out and watch as the life flows down the drain. However, as much as he dislikes his life, he knows for sure that the consequences of such an act would make it worse, and so he fights the demons. When the broken and fitful unconsciousness that passes for sleep finally descends that night, these three characters will be there. The profound effect they have upon him means they unwittingly manage to continue the torture from the comfort of a warm bed. When the taunts finally wear thin, the trio aim a few more insults at him before moving on. Further down the street, he is dismayed to see them pick on an unaccompanied child half their age. This time the burning in his gut is born of anger, when the child's packet of crisps becomes the spoils of war, only to be ground underfoot and scattered to the four winds after one taste. Maybe one time the anger would have been directed at the injustice – that the thugs can operate with impunity due to a society that believe vengeance is not fair and just punishment. Now, however, he is angry because of the wanton waste of food – if pickled onion flavoured maize can be called such. Not that the flavour matters. Though there must have been once, he cannot remember a time when he would have refused anything, even prawn cocktail. Soon after the lunchtime rush has subsided, his heart rate soars again – and for once the cause is hope and expectation. Slinking towards him, weaving in and out of the growing number of cardboard boxes, is the young girl he has come to think of as his little angel. Dressed in a sharp trouser suit, her blonde hair tied back in a tight ponytail, he sees her most weekdays. Unusually, she sees him too. Whether her tortoiseshell glasses have special powers, or she is still a child at heart, he doesn't know. In truth, he doesn't care, as long as she continues to put the odd treat or two in his direction. The shoulder bag she ports probably started life keeping the rain off some endangered species or other, but it's the contents he is interested in. Mostly, the magic rabbit she pulls out is a sandwich or a crusty roll, but occasionally it is money that drops in his lap. The thought of what might be has him suckling again, and the acid searing hits when she is only a few steps away. She looks down at him, but the sympathetic smile (or is it pitying?) disappears rapidly when she sees the image of agony below. He doesn't see this – his eyes are as focused as they can be on the small swatch of skin between bag and cuff. Thus he is surprised and horrified to see the empty hand extricate itself, while the angel's pace whips her away in seconds. She is followed down the street by a howl of despair that segues into a stream of abuse aimed at the world in general. Anyone caring to listen might have been able to make out the word 'wolf' spoken over and over. In his addled mind, she has thrown off her sheep's clothing and turned on him like all the others. After a few minutes, when his rants have lost all strength and direction, the fury implodes and he turns his aggression inwards. As each fist lands, a tiny, lucid part of his mind is aware that he should feel some pain, but carries on the assault regardless. Sobs ultimately replace blows, deflating his wracked body until he falls silent. The next assault isn't entirely unpleasant, being on his nasal senses. He hoists his head off the concrete far too quickly, bouncing a jolt of pain around his skull. When it clears, he can make out the mouth-watering aroma of overcooked beef off cuts, jostling with fried onions, toasted bread and even a hint of pickle. It takes only a second for his nose to locate the source. An immense man with sparse black hair, red face, and a shirt that went on light blue but is now several shades darker, is waddling from the direction of the fast food emporium. Despite the obvious discomfort excess weight is causing, an enormous burger is clamped onto the face like a needy alien. The other hand is trying to grip a carton of fries and a bucket of Coke between stubby fingers; a task that is proving very difficult when combined with putting one foot in front of the other. From his vantage point opposite, he watches the human supertanker manoeuvring in the vicinity of a bench. Often he has thought of using the bench as a bed, but has never acted on it. People seem quite happy to keep him at knee level, but as soon as he gets up on the furniture, it's a different matter. Grease and ketchup is dripping to the floor by the time a position has been achieved to flop down onto the seat. Before gravity can assert itself irrevocably, he purposefully catches the eye of the burger eater. Now a choice has to be made – either eat with an audience, or keep walking. For him, it would be no choice whatsoever. He has been forced on many occasions to do much worse in the company of others, and would dearly love to gorge and binge, such that walking a hundred paces held real terror. A sigh of resignation accompanies the decision to move on, and there is the occasional stop to take as many breaths as bites. With little else to do, he watches the retreating feast and is thus ideally placed to see the initial stumble, followed by the slow motion arcs traced through the air. Even before the burger cartwheels across the ground, he is aware of an intense keening, rising in pitch with each new impact. When he brings his hand to his mouth in response to the tragedy unfolding in front of him, it muffles the sound. Belatedly, he realises that the lamentation has come from deep within his own soul. The intensity of feeling plunges to new depths as tree-trunk legs vent their frustration, further spreading the wreckage. Knowing full well from bitter experience what the outcome will be, he still contemplates leaving the safety of the doorway in order to salvage what he can. As it turns out, by the time he has tensed little used muscles in preparation to move, voracious pigeons have fallen upon every single titbit. While the last of the liquid burns its way down his gullet, he wonders whether he has sunk as low as these flying vermin. The depressing thought fades along with his consciousness, but not before someone he no longer knows asks how many old ladies sit down for an hour and throw him breadcrumbs. It is dark when he comes to. There is a chill in his body that has little to do with the falling temperatures, and he pulls all available layers towards him. The high street takes on an eerie appearance with the arrival of night. Every object has shadows cast from above by the wrought iron streetlights as well as from both sides by illuminated shop windows. The market stalls are long gone, and the mountains of rubbish have already been cleared. He has no recollection of the street cleaners ever being there, fortunately spared the ignominy of being told that he is to be disposed of with the rest of the garbage. There will be a late shift, though, one or two unfortunates despatched to clear up after late night revellers, and their antipathy is normally directed towards him. There are few pedestrians around at this hour, and the nearby theme pub is pumping out unintelligible music, randomly pierced by the shouts and laughter of people who still consume alcohol to have a good time, not just to intentionally anaesthetize. A tear seeps out and trickles along one of his long facial hairs giving the impression of morning due on a spider's web. He rubs angrily at his cheek, knowing that to allow self-pity to take over is to lay down and die. He must be patient, for there is always a window of opportunity between the last pub door closing and the first cleaner arriving. This is his time. There are always bottles left against walls, glasses left on benches. Half the time there will be remnants, and though his sleep may be fitful, there will be warmth in his belly. From the direction of the pub, there are shouts and the tinkle of broken glass. He looks over, unable to make out definitive shapes. What he can see are four blurred figures at close quarters, the larger two of which appear to be dressed all in black. As the doormen succeed in ejecting the undesirables, he offers prayers up to anyone who will listen to his pleas. As usual, they go unanswered. After a few more choice words, the thugs give up and head in his direction. A triumphant call from one to the other turns his spine to dry ice, and he feels his bladder relax as the footsteps approach. When the first blow connects, he realises they have exhausted all their threats and taunts on the doormen. It will be a different kind of sleep for him that night.
Archived comments for Invisible
sirat on 07-04-2006
Invisible
The story works well in that you arouse our sympathy and our interest in the dog. The descriptions are also very vivid. What I didn't like so much was the extreme intrusiveness of the author, who remained a very knowing presence throughout the story, commenting on things that the dog couldn't possibly have known about, and even pointing this out at times. I think that if you want to write from the point of view of an animal or any other character, human or otherwise, you need to see the world through that character's eyes. Dogs (I have read) live to a large extent in a world of smells rather than vision. They are said to be colour-blind, but better able to see in dim light than we are and better able to detect motion in the visual field. They are herd animals, always seeking to live in a pack with a leader (a bit like us!). They are almost exclusively meat-eaters, and so on. If you begin with what you know of the nature of the dog then you can present the dog's world more convincingly. This was an account of things from a completely human, external perspective. Also I thought the shift in point of view from the sparrow to the dog at the beginning felt a bit clumsy and was unnecessary. It was still an enjoyable read, with a good final line.

Author's Reply:

shadow on 10-04-2006
Invisible
This was an interesting, even gripping read - but I felt I was continually 'losing my place' -in the beginnig the protagonist was a bird - then a dog (or cat), and in the end it seemed more like a human down-and-out - I didn't know where I was. It definately held my attention. The details of the protagonist's situatin were so vivid ... yet the general effect was frustrating. And why 'flash fiction'? I thought that was supposed to be under 1000 words.

Author's Reply:


Bad Altitude - Chapter 6 (posted on: 27-03-06)
the next episode

CHAPTER 6 Once the passengers had been fed, all that remained before clearing in the trash was to ply them full of tea and coffee. With the cups already on the trays, we simply had to pass down the aisles, a pot in each hand, pouring as necessary. These pots are surprisingly heavy when full, which coincidentally serves to disprove one of the widespread steward stereotypes, as anyone trying to serve hot drinks with limp wrists is going to be spending rather a lot of time in a burns unit. Back in the galley, it was quite a shock to find that Trisha had actually set up the pots on the counter, ready to go. Brian must have seen my look of disbelief, because the next thing I got was a poke in the ribs. ''She's only done it so we finish quicker,'' he stage whispered. ''That way she gets longer on her arse before the second meal.'' Trisha whipped around abruptly, glaring at the pair of us in turn. Obviously she had heard the whispering, but not the actual content. No matter, as it happened, because her paranoia just filled in the blanks. ''Any reason why you're still here, Brian?'' ''Not really.'' ''In that case, and especially considering I'm assessing you, might I suggest you go out into the cabin, and do your bloody job?'' Not even ninety minutes into the flight and we'd broken her! Brian had already left the galley, pots in hand. I was doing the same thing, right up to the point when Trisha blocked my path. ''I'm watching you Michael,'' she said, as I put the teapots back on the counter and squared up to her. ''Tony's already warned me what you're like, and I'm telling you now that I won't put up with it.'' Whoa! This was turning out to be an interesting flight in more ways than one. Tony was making me suffer by proxy. ''And what sort of warning was this?'' I asked, keen to defend the (admittedly small) professional pride that was being brought into disrepute. ''Apparently you are lazy, rude to the passengers, and difficult to work with. Well, Michael, not in my cabin you're not.'' It had actually been over ten years since I left school but right then Trisha made me feel like I was back in front of Mrs Trimble again, being reprimanded for some minor offence. To say I was insulted would be like saying that a glutton enjoys food – factually correct but by no means conveying the magnitude of the situation. Unfortunately there was no rejoinder because she was clearly out to get me, and anything I said would just be taken down and used as evidence. A bit of diplomacy seemed to be the safest option. ''Sorry, Trisha, but I don't know what you're talking about. I've been working really hard, and no one's complained have they?'' I was hoping that Scruffy hadn't put his oar in, as that would really have buggered my argument. As it was, the hobo mustn't have grumbled because Trisha appeared to have no answer to that. ''Well no…'' she stammered, initially a little unsure of herself, though recovering with haste, ''but there's still plenty of time. Now get your pots and get out there.'' Still fuming, I picked up the two silver pots again and left, not even acknowledging Trisha as I pushed past her. As an advocate of fair play for all, I get massively pissed off when I am accused of a wrongdoing – especially if the accuser cannot possibly have seen me do it. She was right in one respect, though: There was still time, and not for what she was thinking of either. Back in the cabin again, I went about offering all my punters their choice of tea and coffee. Once more the split was around fifty-fifty, ensuring I didn't have to return to the galley for refills, which was great. Not that I was going to be out there for long anyway, as there is only so much pomp and ceremony that can surround the act of serving passengers the 'hot beverage of their choice'. Maybe the Japanese tea ceremonies do last for hours as ingredients and implements are lovingly displayed and admired, and then the bitter liquid is passed around each person in turn to be quietly appreciated, but when a passenger is sitting in a Day-Glo tracksuit, holding a cup in one hand, and a little carton of UHT milk in the other, there can be only one way to offer it. ''Tea or coffee, love?'' I had asked of a pleasant pensioner sat in the first aisle seat. ''Oooh, yes please, young man.'' Pushing all images of Harry Enfield's sex-starved octogenarian characters to the back of my mind, I carefully stifled a sigh of exasperation. ''You see the thing is madam,'' I said, ''that you have to actually tell me which one you'd like before I can let you have it.'' ''Of course,'' she replied with an embarrassed laugh. ''How silly of me. I'd like coffee, please.'' She watched greedily as the dark brown fluid filled the cup held in her shaking hands – down to either caffeine withdrawal or the onset of Parkinson's, it was difficult to tell. ''Oh, thank you so much,'' she gushed, displaying an almost worrying amount of gratitude for what was going to be an awful cup of coffee. Basically, because poisoning passengers with tainted water tends to cause an eventual drop off in bookings, a purification chemical is added to the aircraft tanks. Unfortunately, as well as ensuring we don't run out of Imodium on every flight, this has the unwelcome effect of making the water, and of course anything made with it, taste absolutely dreadful. Personally, I would rather drink London tap water, no matter how many kidneys it has been through, than this stuff, but on board there's no alternative. Anyway, after a few years' flying you become acclimatised to the point where it's the proper stuff from coffee shops that tastes funny. I moved swiftly on to the next row before she took a sip, and thereby sparing myself a chair-side, blow-by-blow view of her disappointment. The American couple I came to next were in my bad books already. Both in their fifties, and so smartly dressed that they must have read the 'how to get an upgrade' book, they evidently felt that not actually achieving the move into the Business cabin should have no bearing whatsoever on their entitlement to the Business product. They had already tried it on during the meal service when a regrettable allergy to both chicken and beef left the lady, in her husband's humble opinion, with no choice but to be served First Class food. I had explained that I fully understood her predicament, and enquired if she was allergic to pasta or tomatoes. Sensing a victory, she had quickly, and enthusiastically replied that no she wasn't, nor was she allergic to parmesan, and so it had been quite a treat to see her little face fall when I dropped an Economy vegetarian meal in front of her. This time round, they were both after fruit tea, strawberry for him and loganberry (whatever that is) for her. I had to bite back the suggestion that I pour them two cups of normal tea and give them a packet of fruit gums. Rather, after another incredibly patient explanation regarding the relationship between ticket price and speciality products, I had bargained them down to two decaf coffees – not least because it involved pressing the call button to attract Trisha's attention, and then getting her to make the bloody things. As she poked her head out of the galley to see who it was that was continually dinging – I had asked the woman because one look at her husband had been enough to convince me that she was going to be adept at using her finger – she realised that it was at my behest and stormed down the aisle. ''What do you want?'' she hissed. ''I'm busy.'' Doing what, I couldn't imagine. Maybe I had disturbed her in the middle of a particularly riveting article on Posh Spice. ''Actually, Trisha,'' I replied, civil almost to a fault, ''I was wondering if you might find your way to making two decafs for these passengers.'' Her eyes followed my outstretched finger to the couple, both of which were watching her intently. Perhaps they thought that she could be a potential source of fruit tea, but it was much more likely they had heard Trisha's initial tone of voice and were scrutinising her for any little thing that could be turned into grievance tokens to be exchanged for future upgrades. This is one of the few remaining growth industries in air travel. Cast an eye down any passenger list these days, and there will inevitably be one or two people who have been upgraded on the authority of customer relations because of a previous 'mishandling'. This can be anything from losing luggage to being served by an ugly stewardess. People are wise to this now, and unlike requesting an upgrade in a suit, seven minutes before departure whilst waving a frequent flyer card in the girl's face, this method is almost foolproof. Firstly, apart from a few obvious examples such as lost luggage, there is no realistically straightforward method to prove the authenticity of a complaint. A passenger can simply stroll up to the customer service desk of any major airline after their flight and claim that the crew were rude to them, or that their food was inedible. As the crew will already have gone home, then it is much easier, if the grievance isn't too major, to give them partial refunds or guarantee future upgrades. Believe me when I say that it is fraud on a scale matched only by government taxation agencies. I have had passengers who have been the epitome of gratitude when they disembarked, all smiles and thanking anyone in any sort of uniform for a fantastic flight, only to read in their recently completed survey form (of course we read them – duh!) that I have been unwittingly responsible for soiled clothing, a religious affront and the attempted kidnap of a first born. Trisha, bitter though she was, had been around the block a few times, and quickly realised that she was under the microscope. ''But of course,'' she oiled, although the scarcely suppressed resentment was close to the surface if you knew to look for it. ''And how does sir and madam take their coffee?'' Another trait of the Pre-menopausal Mentalist that I neglected to mention previously is the unquestionable belief that everybody is beneath them in life. She has come through adversity and survived and that makes her special in her book – hang everyone else. Invariably this manifests itself in an aristocratic accent despite being born and bred cockney, and a slight adjustment to the angle of her neck forcing her to look down her nose at everyone. Trisha was doing this now as she awaited their response, regarding them as a dog owner regards the latest 'gift' left by their pet on the Persian rug. Having ascertained that both were to be black, no sugar, Trisha shot me one final glare, turned on her heels, and was on her way. By the time she had unearthed a couple of cups and two sachets of decaf coffee, I had completed my part of the cabin and returned to the galley. Mandy and friends had refused coffee on the grounds (no pun, stop it now) that it would get in the way of their drinking. All of them were on the way now – helped by their position in the middle four seats, which gave them access to two alcohol sources i.e. the crewmember in either aisle. They had requested more drinks – even though I was clearly heavy with teapots – and I had to promise to take their order on the way back. Aiming to put the pots back before seeing what they wanted, I had strolled past the group without stopping. Misinterpreting this as active ignorance, Mandy had been dispatched with the intention of uniting Mohammed and mountain. ''Hey, you,'' she said, playfully, ''you can't have forgotten us already.'' Her voice, whilst undeniably sexy, was at the drinking stage whereby bubblyness is starting to give way to slurring, and she was swaying a little. Technically I shouldn't have given her anymore, but it was supposed to be the season of goodwill. ''How could I possibly forget you, Mandy?'' I asked, and was rewarded with a mischievous squeeze of my arm. ''What can I get for you?'' Trying to see her own forehead as people often do when remembering lists, she rattled off the drinks order quickly. This surprised me a lot, because when I drink the first thing that goes is my memory. The time taken to walk from table to bar is more than enough to necessitate a return trip to the table to find out what I was there for in the first place. As I rummaged through bar trolleys, searching for the requisite items, Mandy launched unprompted into the story surrounding her trip. ''… so Mark's dad phoned us up and offered to pay for tickets to anywhere in America,'' she said, leading me to assume that Mark was actually Scruffy and that I had been pleasingly correct about the parents, ''and I said 'let's go to Boston' because that's where Cheers is, and I always wanted to see it.'' I couldn't bring myself to dishearten her, not when she'd come this far already, but it was only a matter of time before the ugly truth was revealed. The Cheers bar in Boston is a tourist rip off of Loch Ness Monster proportions. Firstly, everyone doesn't know your fucking name, and secondly – most importantly – the only thing in common with the TV show is the façade, an accurate use of the word in both its meanings. Inside is a run-of-the-mill bar with several little rooms that could not be further in appearance from the large open-plan design that sits in a Hollywood studio somewhere. Drinks are overpriced and the food can be said to be average at best. Were it my local I'd be looking at moving house, but because it is associated with the sitcom it thrives, and because there are so many people visiting Boston every year, they don't need to rely on repeat business. A masterstroke! Time for a change of subject. ''Are you going to go whale watching at all?'' Mandy's pretty blue eyes widened and her face lit up. ''You can do that?'' she squealed, and I nodded. ''Where can you watch whales?'' ''Well that depends,'' I replied, ''if you're interested in the type that swims, then there are tours going from the waterfront most days, and if you're after the type that waddles and spends all day watching soaps and eating chips, then pretty much any fast food outlet will do.'' This had the desired effect, and when she laughed she gave off so much energy that it was infectious. Finishing the last drink, I couldn't help but chuckle as well, even though it was at my own joke. Dropping ice into each glass, I placed all four on a tray and told Mandy to go ahead and sit down – I would bring them out to her. She pirouetted and skipped out of the galley towards her seat and I was treated, yes treated was definitely the word, to a fantastic view of her perfect arse wrapped in tight blue Lycra as she bounced away. True, she had missed the weather reports, but miniskirts and alcohol always, always, mix in my book. Not wasting the opportunity, I followed close behind, carrying the tray. Scruffy was giving me even worse daggers this time, and I suddenly realised that he had been able to see Mandy laughing and joking through the gap in the galley curtain. Well, I thought to myself, add crippling insecurity to his list of attributes. ''And just where do you think I'm going to put that?'' he asked, indicating his table where the meal tray still remained. ''It's been half an hour since we ate and you haven't cleared it away yet. I think it's a disgrace.'' I glanced at Mandy who wore an expression that was a mixture of anger and embarrassment, before I answered. The way he was going, it would be a miracle if he didn't get off the plane as a single man. ''Well sir, I'm sure you noticed that the majority of passengers are now enjoying a cup of tea or coffee – something that you declined to do. When people are done with their hot drinks, we come round again with the trolleys and clear everything away. I'm sure you can appreciate, sir, that snatching half-full cups out of their hands just because one person didn't want any might not be quite in keeping with customer satisfaction.'' I passed the two remaining drinks over his head, and left him speechless, with Mandy openly laughing at him now. This time I felt that I pushed him maybe a little too far. No doubt, he would be craning his neck in all directions trying to find Trisha in order to lodge a complaint. A bit silly of me really, given the atmosphere in which I was working already, but when it came down to the nitty-gritty, Scruffy could not have got any more on my tits had he been a nipple. Clearing in all the trays passed without incident, and we finally squared the last trolley away with only just over two hours of the six-hour flight gone. I helped to tidy the galley, and began pouring out glasses of water and orange juice that would be offered every hour or so. Brian and Karen went back out with a duty-free trolley, on top of which cigarette cartons, perfume boxes, and various other bits of tat, were haphazardly scattered in a vain attempt to earn us some commission. I glanced down the aisle as I crossed the galley, and saw Mandy's two friends buying a litre of vodka. They must have clicked that the supply of free alcohol was about to dry up, and I was willing to bet that it was only a matter of time before the requests for glasses of OJ started pouring in. It turned out that this solitary bottle of Smirnoff was the only item that Brian managed to sell to over a hundred passengers. When I remarked to him that his sales technique could do with a little brushing up, he merely gave me the finger and set about dismantling his meagre display. Just then, the cups of water started to ripple slightly, Jurassic Park-like, a phenomenon that was explained away as Tony stomped into the galley. He was slightly out of breath and had already developed large damp patches under his arms, the spread of which was only being stalled by his prescient choice of short-sleeved shirt. I was really praying that he didn't collapse because we'd have to fish him out of the cargo hold. ''Right then,'' he wheezed, ''here's the breaks. I'll be taking second rest tonight.'' He pinned a scrap of paper next to the ovens onto which had been scribbled four different times – the start and finish time of each break – and then buggered off straight away, no doubt back to his little 'office' where he would have several kilos of leftovers waiting for him. We all had a look over the allocated rest periods, but without much interest – everyone had already worked it out. With the first service over in two-and-a-half hours, only one-and-a-half required for the second, and a flight time of six hours, that left a surplus of two hours. As a minimum of half the crew needed to be on duty, that was one hour each. It wasn't really enough time to get into a bunk and sleep, but what it was plenty enough for was getting away from the passengers, even if only for a short spell. Better still, because Trisha was on a different break from me, it granted me two hours respite from her tyrannical regime. Two hours of not having to watch my arse every single second. One of those hours merrily snoozing in a rest seat, and the other able to do what I liked, say what I liked, talk to who I … hello, came a thought – I wonder how close Scruffy is to dropping off. He was certainly looking the worse for wear when I last looked – bobbing head and bloodshot eyes. Mandy on the other hand was still dapper in spite of the boozing, as was her brunette friend, who had swapped seats with the Scruffster. The pair of them were gabbing away as though their lives depended on it, although when it comes to women, I rather think it does. Following this to its logical conclusion – two attractive and tipsy girls, two soon-to-be comatose boyfriends – how better to wreak my revenge against Trisha, than to do exactly the one thing she hated men for? Plus there would be more than a modicum of reprisal where Scruffy was concerned. And last, but by no means – as the saying goes – least, I was feeling extraordinarily horny. One by one those on first break passed through the galley on their way to the rest area, situated up in the tail section. Next to the rearmost toilets there is a small, innocent looking door. This leads to a small compartment holding four economy seats, and a ladder that climbs up through a small aperture to the bunks. There are eight of these, in sets of two – one above the other – as well as a couple more seats and a small changing area. The bed itself is simply a two-inch mattress inside a wooden box (known as a coffin for exactly that reason) and whilst it may not be as comfortable as a Slumberland, it's a damn sight better than any of the seats. On the longer flights it makes my day to see all the passengers dishevelled and red eyed, having snatched five minutes sleep here and there, while I'm looking smart and rested following four hours blissful kip. They are paying five hundred quid to be in conditions that some dictatorships use as a form of torture. I smiled and said hello to Jane as she walked past. Really, I should have gone back to my galley to be with Penny, but I had just worked my butt off so there was no way I was going to give her the opportunity to desert her post and leave me to mind the shop on my own. On top of that, the social prospects were much improved by staying down the back. Brian and Karen were on the same break as me, providing an amusing, pleasant atmosphere in the galley for once, and obviously there was a certain miniskirted lovely in seat 37D. ''I don't want you serving those four in row 37 any more alcohol while I'm on my break,'' Trisha said, uncannily reading my mind, ''and I want you doing a juice round every thirty minutes, OK?'' We all nodded and, stopping only to get her handbag, she left. In due course, all the first-breakers had trekked through Economy, including a gay guy (you just know, OK) and a girl, probably from First Class, whose faces were completely new to me. On an aircraft this size, it is very easy to get to the destination without ever seeing the people who work either at the pointy end, or upstairs. There was actually one occasion where I asked someone in a hotel lift which flight they had arrived on, only to be told that the lady in question was upper deck Supervisor on mine. In my defence, stewardesses invariably look very different out of uniform, as the dress code allows for little individuality – even hair must be worn in a certain manner. This gives rise to the phrase 'didn't recognise you with your clothes on' being used far more often than in most other professions, with the obvious exceptions of stripping and prostitution; though mentioning the three in the same sentence within earshot of a hostie is not advisable, unless a definition of enjoyment is having the bones of your foot rearranged with a stiletto heel. With Trisha safely tucked up in bed, Penny trapped in the business section, and Tony holed up in his office doing his best to ensure that he needed to visit uniform stores for a pants upgrade, the three of us could relax and make ourselves comfortable. Brian and Karen both sat side by side on the double crew seat by the door, whilst I took a metal container from its stowage, upended it on the floor, and placed a folded blanket on top for padding. Using a stowed bar trolley as a seat back, this method provided a comfortable way of sitting without having to be on the far side of the galley where the other crew seat was, and therefore on my own. Before getting comfy, there was the small matter of closing all the galley curtains – yes, passengers can press their call bells, but there's no need to go about advertising our services – and pouring three fresh cups of coffee. I passed them to the other two and finally plonked my arse on the box seat, exhaling loudly as I seem to be doing more and more with age. There was ample time for hitting on Mandy, and right then all I wanted was a brew and a chinwag. ''Are you out for a beer tonight, Karen?'' I asked. ''Nope,'' she replied with a shake of the head, ''I really overdid it at Christmas, so I'm gymming it tomorrow morning, and then I've got a couple of things to find in the shops.'' ''Bigger clothes?'' ''No actually, Brian, you cheeky sod,'' she exclaimed, although in truth she did appear to be straining some of the seams on her uniform skirt, ''I have to buy some bits and pieces from Crate and Barrel.'' Of course! I should have guessed. C&B, an American store that specialises in homeware, is something of an addiction amongst stewardesses and, when the time comes to check out of the hotel, it can be taken as read that a mountain of branded boxes will surround the wheelie-bags. Such is the obsession with this establishment that girls will often travel miles in order to buy something that could easily be obtained from BHS at half the cost. Several years ago, a flight engineer took advantage of this when he travelled to some backwater in Africa that had only just got electricity, let alone a C&B. He had flat packed a store box before he left home, and reconstructed it in his hotel room. At pick-up the guy waltzed into reception with his bags and this box from C&B under his arm. The result? Nearly every girl besieging him, demanding to know where the store was, and why he hadn't told anyone about it. It seems that a prerequisite for shopping there is gullibility. ''Well I intend to have a beer or two,'' I told her, ''just to wean myself off from last night, and then sleep so long tomorrow that I end up with bed sores.'' Karen regarded me for a few seconds, clearly endeavouring to come up with the subtlest way to express what she was thinking. ''Do you not think that's a bit sad?'' She failed. Personally, I felt that was rich, coming from someone who was aiming to work off a few mince pies and then traipse around looking for a silver plated eggbeater, but the fact is that I have the type of lifestyle that is criticised by nearly everyone. For some it is a matter of envy – they once lived like this but commitments have forced them to trade the Playstation for a Playmat – and for others, mainly the religious and the puritanical, I represent everything that is wrong in this morally bereft society. Well, bollocks to them, because if they represent a cross-section of heaven's guest list, then I would rather spend eternity in the fires of hell. Better suntan for a start. ''Well no, I don't think it's sad,'' I replied, ''because it encompasses two out of my three favourite pastimes – two and a half if I remember to take some tissues to bed.'' ''I hope you're going to use your time a little more constructively,'' she said to Brian, ignoring the Kleenex jibe – a fifty-year-old voice in a rapidly sagging thirty-year-old body. ''Er, no,'' was the reply, as he took over the mantle of 'Karen-baiter', ''I reckon I'll get pissed, fall into my bed, and maybe use the remaining time to construct a little duvet tent.'' Karen's mouth expanded into a large, perfect 'O', a practical demonstration of how easy packing in the Christmas excess must have been, as she stared at us both, shocked beyond words. Unlike Anna earlier in the day, this was no subterfuge, and it was possible to pinpoint the very second her expression changed from disgust to relief when somebody pressed their call button. ''I'll get that,'' she blurted, almost jumping off her seat. Never in the history of air travel had anyone answered that blue light so quickly. ''Fucking hell,'' Brian laughed. ''Frigid bitch or what?'' I nodded my assent, and stood up to refill my coffee. ''Maybe we should lay off her,'' I said, ''she's alright really, and we don't want her having to say too many Hail Mary's tonight for thinking about willies.'' ''How d'you know she's Catholic?'' ''Reacting like that to a couple of wanking double entendres. C'mon!'' ''That's bollocks.'' ''Jesus Christ, Brian. OK, plus she's wearing a crucifix, and her surname's Reilly. How much more d'you need?'' ''All right, calm down. I was just…'' I never got to find out what he was just… because Karen chose that moment to return, and Brian cut himself off mid-sentence, synchronizing his guilty expression with a high-pressure blush. I couldn't help myself, and burst out laughing which served only to set him off as well. If Karen didn't already have a healthy dose of paranoia, then that did the trick. ''What?'' she wailed. ''Oh nothing,'' I replied, but that was never going to work, ''no, we were just saying that we were being a bit dirty in front of you and it was very rude of us – acting like little schoolboys really.'' ''Oh…right…well I was a bit taken aback. Silly really. Catholic upbringing and all that.'' ''Bingo.'' Brian had only whispered the word, but I heard it clearly, and only a quick about-face pretending to rearrange some juice cartons stopped Karen from seeing the tears start to well, as I made a Herculean effort not to double up. ''What did…the…passengers want?'' I asked her in between deep breaths. ''Sorry?'' she replied, momentarily confused. ''Oh, yes…er, two orange juices for 37D and E.'' Gentlemen, start your engines! ''I'll get those,'' I said, probably much too enthusiastically, ''sit yourself down again.'' I watched her as she rewound the past couple of minutes, eventually recalling the appearance of the OJ recipients, and allowing the penny to drop. A small shake of the head, a shrug of the shoulders, and she sat down. In the meantime I put four glasses of orange on a tray with two others full of ice, and left. The cabin lights had been turned down fully by now, and I walked the few feet to Mandy's row with my eyes locked on the floor. Firstly this allowed me to see any errant passenger legs that are often stretched out into the aisle in an attempt to increase their legroom, and secondly it prevented any form of eye contact with people who may actually want something. As it was the two girls seemed to be the only ones awake, their overhead lights acting like a beacon in the night, and their voices clearly audible as I left the galley. Arriving alongside Mandy's seat I handed over the glasses containing the orange juice. ''Thanks, Mike,'' she said, the effects of alcohol making her voice almost a shout in an environment where the only noise was the background hiss of rushing air. I placed my finger on my lips and then indicated all the sleeping forms, and she made a contrite face, then an exaggerated 'shhhh' with her finger against her wonderfully plump, pink lips, and then giggled. Happily, the girls' two travelling companions were formally out for the count now, and the lack of reaction to Mandy's gratitude confirmed that this was going to be a long-term state. Game on. I crouched down, a little twinge heralding that in a few years my crouching days would be over, and placed the ice on their tables. ''I thought this might make the mixing a little easier, and,'' I said, as I gave them two OJ's each, ''I thought you might be really thirsty.'' ''I honestly don't know what you're talking about,'' said Mandy, as she surreptitiously tried to push the vodka bottle under her seat. ''Don't worry, I won't tell,'' I said, softly chucking her upper arm, ''just be aware that you're not allowed to drink your duty-free on board, so if that dragon I'm working with catches you, I know nothing, OK?'' ''OK, cheers Mike,'' she replied, as I reached down behind her legs to grab the liquor bottle, and handed it up to her, ''this is Jenny, by the way. She's my best friend from the next street down in Richmond. Mike, Jenny. Jenny, Mike.'' I smiled in Jenny's direction and mouthed 'hi'. She was not as attractive as Mandy – harsh, pointed features and the scars from a bloody battle with teenage acne saw to that – but nature had compensated in the form of a stunning body. A glimpse under her table revealed a pair of fantastic, well-toned legs, and the upper body, which was similarly trim and tanned, acted as base camp for the most amazing pair of gravity-defying breasts I had seen outside of a bloke's magazine. I then realised that, for the umpteenth time, I had been asked a question and missed it. Mitigating breasts aside, maybe there was something to the 'beer kills brain cells' theory. ''I said,'' Mandy repeated, ''do you go straight back to London tonight?'' I chuckled at Mandy's question, as it was a worryingly common one. People just don't think it through. Even if the turnaround was super quick, the duty day for Boston – the shortest US route there is – and back would be in the region of sixteen hours. Vancouver and back? You're having a laugh. ''No, no,'' I said, ''we stay there for a day. Back tomorrow night.'' ''That's nice,'' Mandy said. ''Where do you stay? A bed and breakfast?'' ''Not quite. We're in the Vacation Inn in town. Copley Place I think.'' ''No way,'' she squealed, before realising she was shouting again, and clamping her hand to her mouth. ''That's where we are tonight.'' ''Really?'' I exclaimed, forgetting about voice pitch myself. ''Yeah,'' she said, vigorously nodding her head in perfect time with Jenny, ''it was dirt cheap 'cos it's New Year night. We're booked into a different place tomorrow, but Mark wanted to stay somewhere with a courtesy bus for the first night so he didn't have to spring for a taxi. Oooh, this is sooo cool.'' Mandy was getting quite over-excited now; this large, but not unheard of, coincidence acting as a catalyst for the chemical reaction that takes place in the female brain when, for example, a horoscope proves against all the odds to be correct. She released a tirade of 'no', and 'I can't believe it, can you believe it, Jen?' before the full import suddenly dawned on her. After a quick glance at her boyfriend, who was reliably still unconscious, she leaned closer to whisper in my ear. ''Those two are shit drinkers. If you can actually wake them up to get them off the plane, then all they'll want to do when we get to the hotel is go straight to bed. Maybe we could meet up for a little drinky?'' Her eyes revealed a hint of mischief, and not an insignificant amount of inebriation. I found myself agreeing to this assignation way before my conscience was able to suggest that trying to get off with a much younger, drunken girl, whose boyfriend is going to be in the same hotel, wasn't really the behaviour of a fully paid-up member of the human race. When it finally did get round to lodging a complaint, several other emotions – namely lust, ego, revenge, greed, and pride – collectively told my integrity exactly where it could go, and what to do when it got there. ''There's a sports bar in the hotel itself,'' I said, ''which is pretty much as good as anything nearby. It's going to be 4am London time after all, so you don't want to be going too far.'' ''That sounds great,'' she purred, reaching out to touch my arm, ''I look forward to it.'' ''Me too. See you later then. Bye Jen.'' With that, I struggled to straighten up – my knees by then had decided to make 'crouch' their default position – and left them with their vodka and orange. Rather than go back to the galley, I headed towards the back of the aircraft to check on the four toilets. Even though clandestine shagging was no longer a problem, I still had to make sure that there were no towering infernos or, more realistically, smoke detectors that had been sabotaged by desperate nicotine addicts. Everybody I passed was asleep, most in various contortions forced by the size of the seats. Because the flight was half-empty, a lucky few had managed to secure three or four seats abreast and, having lifted up all the armrests, were now enjoying relatively comfortable, and pleasantly horizontal sleep. The rear of the cabin was dimly lit by the glow coming off the emergency exit lights, and the small shafts of light escaping from the toilet doors. The toilets, two in the centre with their doors facing out to the sides, and two in the rear bulkhead, either side of the central crew rest area, were all unoccupied. I checked the first two, before crossing the little corridor to the other side. With this simple task completed, I decided to stroll back to the galley past the two girls. I walked back into this corridor, and straight into Mandy, who was skulking there. ''Jenny thinks I've gone for a pee, so I've not got long.'' ''Long for what?'' I enquired, my heart rate off the scale now, potential disappointment and just plain potential combining to send a healthy squirt of adrenaline through my body. ''Just a little taster of what might happen tonight if you meet us.'' And just like that, she reached up and pulled my face to hers using my tie. The effect was spoiled slightly when the limitations of a clip-on became apparent, but the result was not affected. I tasted the bitter-sweetness of the vodka drink as she pushed her tongue past my lips. By the time I had overcome my surprise and went to embrace her, she had pulled away. ''Make sure you come tonight,'' she said, giving me another peck on the lips, and darting into the nearest toilet. ''I'm surprised I didn't come then,'' I said under my breath, taking time to re-clip the tie, and adjust my trousers so that the little fella had room to breathe, before going back into the cabin. And I said this was going to be a shit flight.
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Bad Altitude - Chapter 5 (posted on: 20-03-06)
The fifth chapter - hopefully easier to read!!

CHAPTER 5 The rest of the boarding passed without a hitch, with the majority of the Business passengers seated on the upper deck, as expected. I was just getting used to the idea of an easy life on this sector when Tony appeared in the galley to gleefully deliver some bad news. ''I see you only have eight down here,'' he said, ''so I've had a word with Penny, and she agrees that you may as well go and help down the back. She and Jane will easily cope up here.'' Bastard. Absolute. Total. Bastard. I had been wrongly labouring under the impression that Brian had singled himself out for mistreatment. As it happened, Tony's reserves of maliciousness were such that he could ruin the Liverpool lad's day, and still have plenty left over for the rest of us. He knew that I had tried to avoid the Economy section and this was his way of letting me know who was still boss. They had just over a hundred people back there, already overseen by five cabin crew. My turning up was only going to cause problems because the whole service was based around these five. One extra just got in the way. Actually, what was more likely to happen was that the Supervisor, Trisha, would send me out into the cabin on her trolley, whilst she 'controlled operations' from the galley; generally by drinking tea and reading Hello magazine. Worse still, I was sure that I would end up serving the mother and baby combo, and she had already demonstrated her neediness. The flight had definitely taken a massive turn for the worse. At least it wasn't a totally full flight though, because that's when all the trouble starts. I am always filled with dread at the thought of cramming nearly four hundred people into an aluminium tube, and then putting it three hours from the nearest landmass. People are split up, families forced to sit apart, and there is the general air of menace that comes with all crowd situations. The whole operation is effectively the equivalent of a Holiday Inn run by HM Prison service but with fewer criminals (convicted ones anyway), and often I can't help but feel that the aircraft is only one unavailable meal choice away from burning seats and shit on the walls. With the doors finally closed, and all the passengers persuaded that the aircraft was much more likely to depart with everyone in their seats, and not just milling around in the general area, the flight was ready to go. A sudden lurch, followed by a sensation of smooth acceleration, gentle enough that a view out of the window was needed to convince the inner ear that there was still movement, heralded the push-back and beginning of the journey. Tony's voice came over the PA requesting that the crew place the doors to automatic, thus arming them so that jumpers are met by a nice slide and not a decidedly unfriendly twenty-foot drop. Whilst Jane armed our door, I busied myself in the galley, trying to avoid any contact with the public for as long as humanly possible. I emptied the dregs of the coffee down one of the three toilets, and set the pot up so that a fresh one could be started the second the wheels came up. This was working on the same general principle as the safety equipment – the passengers get nothing until the crew are sorted. Eventually though, the opening chords of the safety video were audible through the speakers, meaning I had to make myself visible in the cabin in order to answer any 'queries' the passengers may have. As with most safety related matters, the theory is sound, but the practice is absolute tosh. During my entire illustrious career, I have been asked two questions during this demonstration – the first was a request for a gin and tonic, and the second for two hundred B&H. The average person has seen these demos enough times to be able to recite the whole thing backwards, and therefore, understandably, turn their attention elsewhere when it comes on. None of the buggers even listen to the captain's announcements, which might actually contain items of interest such as the arrival time, or the fact that it may suddenly be a good idea to leave the plane as quickly as possible. What chance do the authorities think they've got with a boring portent of doom, most of which is blindingly obvious to all but those with single figure IQ's? Take each part of the briefing and look at it with a healthy dose of realism. The seat belt, for example, is demonstrated before each flight so that all and sundry are not only able to strap themselves to the aeroplane, but also release themselves if it all goes a bit wrong. Now, although it may be a bit harsh, I know I am not alone in thinking that no matter how stressful the situation, anyone who can't undo this simple 'lift flap' catch should be left in place to burn, thereby breeding such stupidity out of the human race. The oxygen masks are another prime example, as a case could be made that, faced with over three hundred yellow 'mask-like' pieces of rubber cascading from the ceiling, anyone who didn't 'place it over the mouth and nose and breath normally' was probably suffering from a brain condition that oxygen deprivation would have little effect upon. Mind you, given the fact that rapid cabin decompression makes all body gases expand in a second, escaping through the nearest orifice, the best possible course of action is to strap on a mask pumping pure oxygen to the face. One aspect that should be listened to in this briefing is the requirement to leave all hand baggage behind in the event of an evacuation. Every time people have been forced to leap out of aircraft, half the bastards took the time to retrieve their duty free. This not only caused problems with blockages at the doors, but also led to additional injuries as people suddenly found that although they were jumping out of a burning cabin, it was straight onto a field of broken glass. Whilst the officious-sounding video woman was still admonishing the passengers against the horrors of smoking, and then in the same breath telling them that they'd better jolly well sit back and relax or else, I started checking the cabin for take off, making sure all the passengers had fastened their seat belts, and that any luggage was firmly under the seat in front. The main reason for not placing it behind the legs becomes readily apparent when the aircraft has to stop suddenly on the runway, because a briefcase will obey Newton's law and reliably breaks both ankles. Given that such a stop could be followed by the command to get off, disadvantaging oneself from the outset would probably be considered a bit of an own goal. I rang Tony to let him know that my part of the cabin was secure, downed the last of my water, and strapped myself into the crew seat. Jane arrived a minute or two later, sitting down opposite, and flashing me a smile. With her bobbed blond hair, and big blue eyes she was attractive enough, but at the same time gave the impression that MENSA were not exactly beating a path to her door. ''So, Mike, how was Christmas for you?'' she asked, sticking to the normal innocuous conversation because, in a world where most of the people you work with are meeting you for the first time, a bit of 'getting to know you' is needed before you can realistically ask if they spit or swallow. ''A distant and hazy memory,'' I answered truthfully, the day itself having been a mix of lager, shooters, and charcoaled turkey breast aux frites with Phil. ''How about yourself?'' Jane then went on to describe what she considered to be the perfect family Christmas involving both sets of parents, siblings, little nieces tearing gleefully at wrapping paper, egg nog and carol singing around the tree. She was obviously incredibly pleased with how it all went, even though it sounded to me like a protracted living hell. There are many people like this in my job, who seem to live their entire lives around Hollywood and certain celebrity gossip magazines. Take Jane for example. She had clearly recreated an ideal family Christmas from several of her favourite American films (who in England has egg nog, or sings carols?), had her hair styled as closely similar to Drew Barrymore's as it was possible to get without an actual transplant, and – if she were to grace us with her presence for a drink in Boston – would almost certainly be wearing part Gucci, and part Prada because these were the choice brands for half the women in OK this month. Oh yes, and she was wearing about a hundredweight of Tiffany jewellery, despite the number of 'dog choke-chain' references she must have been getting. I just hoped that most of this was fake. For me, the saddest type in the world is the person who, despite having unrestricted access to hooky goods in several Far Eastern countries, actually pays full price for designer gear, because they would know the difference. Come on! These days the counterfeit stuff is made by the same people as the 'real' products (I'm afraid that what goes around, comes around Mr. Nike), and is of equal, if not better, quality. Apart from the unfortunate incident where I received a few enquiries as to the true origin of my 'Reedok' t-shirt, I have been proudly wearing dodgy gear since I started flying, and I don't see enough designers on the bread-line to make me feel the slightest bit guilty about it. This also applies to movie studios, record companies, and many, many times over to Bill Gates. I suddenly realised that I had once again slipped into a daydream state, and had missed one of Jane's queries. She was looking at me with her eyes slightly bigger than normal, and her head cocked to one side, patiently awaiting my reply. Gambling on her being in the majority of women who, once a man has answered the first question he was asked (purely to start the conversation in the first place), want him to shut up and listen, only sporadically uttering the right noises to agree with them, I gave her what I thought she wanted to hear. ''Yes. Yes, you're right.'' ''Exactly,'' she answered (sorry sisters), ''I mean really, who ever heard of designer shoes from BHS?'' Gradually it became clear to what I had just replied in the affirmative. Apparently her inthoughtful (sic.) husband had been stupid enough to buy her presents that actually looked nice, rather than those that were mobile advertising hoardings. Still, for the sake of an easy life, I continued to nod, and mutter 'yes' as she went on to cast aspersions on a non-Ralph Lauren bathrobe, a non-Burberry handbag, and non-Calvin Klein underwear, all the while thinking that she must venture out wearing more labels than a Formula One racing driver. I mean I too wear named clothing (although the 'name' probably doesn't know I've got it), because it is usually fashionable, but surely there are limits? Having a discreet rectangular label on a pair of jeans is a small price to pay for not having an elasticated waistband, but having the designer's name down each leg in sequins is a bit too Liberace for my tastes. In the middle of a rather too personal attack on her husband's mother for buying her bathroom products that hadn't been secreted from the anus of a Loréal squid on Shrove Tuesday or something, I was literally saved by the bell. Up on the flight deck where those lucky pricks also known as pilots lived, one of them had pretty much finished his day's work by pressing a button marked 'cabin signal'. This caused a bell to chime three times, and was meant to signal to the crew that take off was imminent. A minute later, the two engines on my side roared as they hit full power, pushing me back into my seat and, more importantly, drowning out any conversation. I looked out of the window set into the huge door, trying to focus on each of the airport hotels as they whizzed past at over one hundred miles per hour. Then, suddenly, my shoulders buckled under an invisible weight. The buildings disappeared from view, to be replaced by billowing clouds, glowing both white and orange as the streetlights and the aircraft's lights illuminated them simultaneously. Seconds later the roads were far below us, and the clouds were just wisps of ghostly white, like a fast-forwarding horror movie graveyard. Another minute later, the aircraft surged from the clouds into the starlit night sky leaving a white carpet below, with eerie orange patches signifying populated areas scattered here and there. I decided that, as I was only to be a fifth wheel anyway, I would wait until the seatbelt signs were switched off before I went to the back galley, and carried on admiring the view. The orange blobs were increasing in number now as our altitude increased, so much so that I could make out Birmingham on the horizon. My city gazing was then rudely interrupted by one of the passengers searching for a toilet. ''Excuse me sir,'' I said, in an officious but polite tone, ''the seatbelt signs are still on. Can you please sit back down?'' The man, a tall, thirty-something English guy whose hair was already thinning and whose lack of style was borne out by his brown cords, and red lumberjack shirt, pretended not to hear me, all the while opening and closing the ashtray in a futile attempt to open the toilet's door. A five inch square label right in front of him with the word 'PUSH' written in three inch high letters could not deter him from his quest to find the world's first automatic aeroplane lavvy door. This 'head in the sand' approach is used by countless passengers (and little children) in the belief that, if they can't hear us giving a bollocking then eventually we will get bored and leave them to carry on doing whatever it was that we needed to bollock them for in the first place. Basically, the only way round this selective deafness is to raise the volume each time until even Helen Keller would have to take notice. ''Excuse me sir,'' I repeated, louder this time, ''go back to your seat please.'' Still unable to master the method of entry, he had nowhere to go and had to acknowledge me. However, he was still trying to gain access whilst saying over his shoulder something about needing to go, which is why I had the satisfaction of watching him jump six inches into the air and then fall on his knees, when the driver flew straight through another plane's wake creating a similar effect to that achieved by a jetski crossing the wake of a speedboat. With my arms crossed, and my best 'told you so' expression, I watched as he sheepishly stood upright again and brushed himself down. He was still desperate to go, but I had my moral victory as he shuffled back to his seat, looking forlornly up at the seatbelt sign, which remained obstinately lit. What with meeting Anna, the juice incident, and now this vindication, I was beginning to rethink my opinions regarding the existence of deities. As expected, by the time I reached the rear galley the bar trolleys were already set up, and there was another disapproving look waiting for me, this time from the Economy Supervisor, Trisha, who was, like Penny, a Pre-menopausal Mentalist, or PM. ''Where've you been? We've all been busy putting the bar trolleys up.'' ''Sorry, Trish, I –'' ''That's Trisha!'' she quickly corrected, knocking her disdainful glare up a notch. ''Sorry, Trisha,'' I countered, purposefully pronouncing every letter, ''but I had to persuade a passenger to go back to his seat, and then had to make sure he was OK after that bump put him on his arse.'' She looked at me for a few seconds and then with an over-emphasised 'harrumph' (I didn't know people said that anymore!), pointed to the trolley that it was to be my honour to command. I was overjoyed to see that I would be serving in the rear Economy cabin on the right side looking backwards – as far away from the martyred mum as it was possible to get. The pissed up student types would have the benefit of my attention, although at this stage I couldn't be bothered with the hassle of refusing them booze. As far as I was concerned, provided they weren't fighting or puking on the carpet, they could have what they liked with my blessing – I wouldn't be there for the hangover. And so, with a little smile brought on by the realisation that I didn't feel so bad anymore, I released the pedal brake and ventured into the cabin, albeit with some difficulty. Airline trolleys are exactly like their supermarket brethren when it comes to directional stability. The big difference exists elsewhere as, for the climb phase of the flight, the cabin floor slopes significantly. Therefore, before releasing the brake, the sensible crewmember braces himself for the inevitable strain as 60kg of bar trolley is introduced to Mr. Gravity. Otherwise, twenty rows later, these things have built enough momentum to take someone's foot off. Having dispensed the usual types of drinks – G&T, VAT, beer, wine etc. – along with a small amount of banter, I was serving a slightly eccentric old dear who asked for a red wine and cola. It wasn't until she specified only one glass that the full mixing horror became apparent, and I practically threw the complementary pack of nuts at her in my haste to move on before this aberration took place – I could only imagine what it was going to look like. As a result, I had pushed the trolley straight past the row of students, which did not sit well with the cheeky little soapdodgers. In scenes reminiscent of the finest parliament caterwauling, both of the males were up on their feet in seconds, one waving his boarding card like a session paper, endeavouring to make their drinks order heard above that of their colleagues. All that was required to complete the picture was cries of 'shame, shame'. Their 'leader' – the 'alpha' male who was going to make use of his girlfriend in the facilities – eventually silenced the rest with a few tactical grunts. ''Hey you. Where's our drinks?'' he bleated, dropping himself neatly into the 'pushy wanker' sub-class of student. ''We paid for tickets, free drinks come with the tickets. Q.E.D. you owe us drinks.'' With each word he kept on dropping through the scummy lower tiers until he ultimately arrived at the level marked 'pushy wanker with grossly over-inflated opinion of himself; who despite having well-off parents kind enough to shell out for foreign travel, bemoans the socialist plight (usually in the same breath that demands an upgrade to get away from the same socialists); who confuses the use of big words and arcane languages as a sign of the intelligence he sadly lacks; and who likes to show off and play big man in front of his equally thick mates, all of whom think he's god because he has shagged exactly twice the number of girls as them – i.e. two.' In short, an eedjit. ''I'm sorry sir,'' I answered, using formality to annoy him because we both knew full well that only cabin crew and facetious waiters would ever call this scruffy prick 'sir'. ''I didn't see you there. So, what would you like to drink, madam?'' Although the last bit was aimed at his companion, I maintained eye contact with Scruffy for slightly longer than necessary and that pissed him off even more. I transferred my gaze to the girlfriend scarcely a second before he could accuse me of calling him a chick. ''Could I have a glass of champagne, please?'' she asked, casting a critical eye over her (soon to be ex-, by the look on her face – maybe I was wrong about the trip to the toilet) boyfriend as he continued muttering dissent. With such tastes, this lassie was obviously sliding on his pole for exactly the time it took to find a bloke with cash. She was facing disappointment today, though. ''Sorry madam,'' I said, ''we don't have champagne in this cabin.'' ''Well,'' Scruffy said, needing to be heard again, ''maybe you should put us in a cabin that does.'' ''I'm afraid you don't meet the dress code, sir.'' The little blonde snorted, in quite an attractive way if that's possible, and chuckled her reply. ''Oh never mind, what wine do you have?'' I liked this girl. I especially liked the fact that, by being pleasant to me, she was infuriating Scruffy. And she had great tits. I suddenly had an idea that would probably send him over the edge. ''Actually, just hang on a sec.'' Setting the trolley brake, I went back through our galley, ignoring Trisha who was stuffing a biscuit into her mouth with crumbs dropping all over her gossip publication, and up into the Business galley. Penny was out in the cabin, so I quickly filled one of the Economy plastic beakers with champagne and left. ''There you go madam, just between us, ok?'' ''Oooh,'' (well, she was blonde) ''thank you so much… Michael.'' I was really going to have to get a new name badge. ''Mike, please.'' ''OK, Mike. I'm Mandy.'' ''Nice to meet you, Mandy. Now what can I get for you, sir?'' Scruffy was only about three degrees away from incandescent, but an endangered pair of neurons must have sparked somewhere in the mainly empty space between his ears telling him that he was beaten and, more importantly, that if he wanted a drink at all, he'd better ask nicely. ''Beer.'' Obviously not that nicely as it turned out. Bending to retrieve a can from one of the lower drawers, I treated him to a sotto voce 'please' that Mandy, who was sitting by the aisle, actually heard. She giggled again but remained silent, leaving Scruffy wondering why. As their friends were sitting on the other side of the middle four seats, serving them was Brian's responsibility, so once again I let the brake off and moved on. Scruffy, however, hadn't finished yet. ''Hang on,'' he called, ''I haven't got any nuts.'' ''Yes,'' I replied, picking up a packet and leaning over Mandy to pass it to him, ''I think that's very apparent, isn't it?'' I was away back to my bar before he could respond, leaving Mandy, who had snorted champagne all over her face, making feeble excuses about bubbles. Ten minutes later, as I pulled the trolley back towards the galley, I received a life-threatening glare from Scruffy, but a cheeky little smirk from his foxy partner. Hopefully I'd scuppered his chances of getting laid for good. Maybe there was even a chance that…no, best not I thought, certainly not with Tony baying for my blood, and two dried-up forty-somethings watching like hawks for any perceived slight or indiscretion. Meanwhile, Brian had finished his round a few minutes ahead of me and was dismantling his bar already. Trisha was in the toilet, so he was taking full advantage to clatter about loudly, swearing under his breath. I guessed that he had met the mother, as a baby's bottle was warming in a teapot of hot water on the side. ''All right, mate,'' I greeted him, ''and how is the little bundle of joy?'' ''Piss off,'' was the instant reply. ''That cow's already got me doing her milk, telling me she'll be eating later, and handing me shitty nappies. Sometimes I hate this job. Think I'll quit and become a rent boy – get some respect, you know?'' ''The day you become a rent boy is the day you go hungry, my friend.'' We both laughed and Brian went off to deliver the baby's milk whilst I took my bar apart as well. The ovens had been on for about fifteen minutes by then, and the galley's atmosphere was a cross between a sauna and a takeaway kitchen, with a hint of burning suggesting the spillage of previous meals. Remembering to lean away from the door, I opened the first oven and, allowing the clouds of steam to melt away, satisfied my curiosity as to the identity of this evening's meal. It was braised Aberdeen Angus pieces in onion gravy with roast potatoes and green beans, or roast breast of fowl with mashed potato, and carrots. Better known in airline parlance as 'chicken or beef'. I wasn't surprised in the least that Trisha hadn't even bothered to pull out the four trolleys containing the meal trays – clearly it was to be self-service tonight with little or no help from the 'galley girl'. I rammed the bar into its stowage alongside the aircraft door, and then pulled two of the tray trolleys from the chiller under the ovens. At that point both Maggie and Karen entered from the cabin, to the sound of rattling quarter-sized wine bottles, which were displayed on their trolley-tops. With so few passengers, the consensus was to only do one drink's round followed by the two girls offering wine to accompany the meal. David – one of many stewards who had crossed over to the 'brown side' in their mid-teens – seemed to have escaped as far as the bar round was concerned, but there were no prizes for guessing why. Trisha's sort always love the gay guys because a) they don't usually go round 'wronging' women like us straight bastards do on a daily basis, and b) they often consider the older female crew to be glam, especially if their fashion icon is Dame Edna. I suggested to Maggie that, were she to disappear to the toilet for ten minutes with 'ladies' things', then at least David would have to hand out a few meals. After a few seconds of lip-biting and careful consideration she went over to whisper something to Karen, took her handbag out of the cupboard and headed for the bog. ''Where's she going then?'' David asked, sounding much like an English Graham Norton. ''She has gone to the toilet,'' was Karen's answer, using the female tone of voice, which states in no uncertain terms that 'this interview is over'. ''Oh. Should I get on her trolley then?'' The three of us just stared at him as if to say 'duuh' (in fact, only Karen and myself were 'as if to' – Brian actually said it) until he withered under the spotlight, and pulled out a trolley himself. Trisha was still nowhere to be seen which meant that I was the one donning oven gloves to transfer the piping hot racks to the trolleys. Karen covered each one with an insulated sleeve, and we were ready. This part of the service starts off as a piece of piss (as long as you can tell the difference between chicken and beef, you're sorted), but gets gradually more tricky as it becomes apparent that because either the beef looks like dog food, or the chicken hasn't waxed properly, there is suddenly only one choice remaining. It is incredible that with the amount of starvation in the world, most passengers would rather the airline catered enough food for everyone to get their choice, heedless to the inevitable huge wastage, than be told that the chicken that they were going to order anyway is the only option available. As it happened, the preferences were split more or less straight down the middle. Even those people who claimed to have ordered vegetarian meals, (every one of them was a liar – haven't they heard of passenger lists?) were accommodated using the spares that were loaded. An anaemic woman in hippy clothes and surrounded by an organic atmosphere had ordered a vegan, not the normal vegetarian meal she had received. Simply removing the coffee creamer from the tray rectified that, although I thought that, given the state of her teeth, she could do with the calcium. The miasma that enveloped her definitely pointed towards one too many lentils. However, I had to accept this as her lifestyle choice. Never mind that I'm treated as a mini-Hitler just because I like to have a cigarette with my beer. It may well be the case that second-hand smoke is offensive and harmful to some, but I would point out that so is second-hand lima bean. No wonder vegans are anti-smoking – the proximity to naked flames could prove disastrous. Seated in the row behind the stink monster was the American woman who I had encountered during the boarding. She sat staring at the seat-back screen, headphones on, and was oblivious to her surroundings. Mind you, anyone who could sport such a hideous shellsuit obviously spent most of her waking life in oblivion. ''Would you like the chicken or the beef tonight, madam?'' I asked. No response whatsoever. I repeated the question. Still nothing. I was competing with Mel Gibson, and he had the distinct advantage of being piped directly into her vacuous head. I slowly waved my hand around the edge of her peripheral vision, not wanting to shock her too much because there was no chance the crone was getting CPR. After an age she noticed me and looked up. Again I asked her what she wanted for dinner, and again, because of the headset she hadn't removed, it fell on deaf ears. ''What did you saaay?'' she shouted, unable to gauge the volume of her own voice. During the meal service, if there is a movie on, the cabin sounds like a home for the elderly, with all the passengers voluntarily impairing their hearing. I motioned for her to take off the offending items, but this was clearly advanced sign language, because she just gave me a puzzled look. ''What? Oh I'll have a glass of Chardonnay,'' she shouted back, pronouncing the 'ch' like 'chair', and putting the emphasis on the 'nn'. Jesus Christ, I thought to myself, the food in front of me was displaying more signs of life than she was. At last my patience snapped – this had been ongoing for five minutes now – and I pulled out a tray, dropped a braised beef meal on it, and set it down in front of her. Then I did the same for her friend and tried to escape before she could react – not quickly enough as it happened. ''Stewaaard,'' she almost screamed, forcing me to acknowledge her, ''is this beef Britiiish?'' For Christ's sake! ''Hang on,'' I answered, turning back to the oven rack, ''I'll just check its passport… yes … it's British.'' ''Oh no,'' she exclaimed, for effect this time because by now the headphones were off, ''I could get that mad cow, or something.'' In my opinion the beef was actually more at risk from her, but as I couldn't really give that tray to anyone else if she changed her mind, I was going to have to win her over to Daisy's side. ''I can categorically state, madam,'' I said, ''that you are in no danger whatsoever of developing mad cow from this beef.'' This wasn't exactly a fabrication – after all, the scientists agree it's not possible to contract it twice. However, sensing a little more nudging was required, I leant over so that my mouth was close (well, as close as I dared) to her ear. ''And just between you and me,'' I whispered, ''the caterers said the chicken meals are all past their sell-by date – you know, they're a bit… old.'' ''Reeeeally?'' she screeched, failing to deafen me by a matter of only a few decibels. ''I'll have the beef then.'' ''A wise choice, madam,'' I agreed, leaving her as she informed her companion (who, luckily, had accepted the beef as well) that we were serving retired chickens.
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Bad Altitude - Chapters 3/4 (posted on: 13-03-06)
Chapters Three and Four. Not for kiddies!!

CHAPTER 3 I rushed through the briefing room door with mere seconds to spare, earning several disapproving looks from the more senior crew. Although the briefing was only due to start at this time, there is an unwritten rule that everyone be sat down at least five minutes early. This gives the Steward- (or, just as often, Stewardess)-in-Charge opportunity to settle people down and crack on, because there's plenty to cover and only fifteen minutes set aside to get it all done.      As I scanned the other thirteen faces scattered around the room, vaguely recognising one or two from previous excursions, my eyes settled on the SiC and my heart sank.      Sitting directly in front of me like Jabba the Hutt's gruesome twin brother, was the most vindictive, petty and evil bastard ever to have squeezed into the uniform. Take every traffic warden you have ever crossed, and add in an extra measure of intransigence. Then mix in a huge dollop of bitterness born of the unshakable conviction that the world is steadfastly refusing to cough up the living it owes, and finally, as if this mixture weren't volatile enough, drop in about one hundred pounds of excess fat. The resulting person would be a nightmare, but even he would consider Tony Robertson to be a twat.      Tony and I went back about two years, with the relationship soured from day one over conflicting opinions regarding the definition of 'pissed up wanker' and its usage with respect to superiors. He gave ugly a bad name, and was only one step away from alcoholism. He'd be doing mankind a favour if that step were to be in front of a fast-moving vehicle, but the human race seems destined for unluckiness in that respect. The problem arose because, despite his balding, ruddy-cheeked, multi-chinned, fat head, he still considered himself attractive to women. Having watched him turn his 'charms' onto one of the girls in a Washington bar, I pointed out that maybe the look of disgust on her face was an indication that she didn't want to picture him in bed, and certainly didn't want him to roll over and wake her in the morning. Just like that, he turned nasty. I was pushed up against the wall and told in no uncertain terms that he 'had not been flying for twenty five years only to have a little prick like me telling him who he can talk to'. One look into his crazed eyes told me he had downed more than the six pints we'd seen him drink at the bar, and a Herbert Lom twitch suggested that discretion was the better part of valour. I backed down as much as one could with a wall in the way. I'm a coward at heart – my 'fight or flee' thermostat is permanently stuck in the 'leg it' zone – and although Tony didn't look fit or healthy, his massive bulk would have been an advantage in a square go. It would have been like punching the Pillsbury Dough Boy, although that little character rarely gives off the impression of being tasty with a broken bottle. As it was, my rescue came in the form of a few placatory words from the rest of the crew, and he finally let me go and staggered back to the bar.      The last laugh was mine, however. This admittedly minor act of chivalry hadn't gone unnoticed by Elaine, the object of Tony's desires, although she seemed blind to the fact that I'd nearly shit my pants when he'd gone critical. Tony had also inadvertently given us a huge topic of conversation. Between taking the piss and being horrified at his appearance, there was a huge well of chat to dip into, and we were still there when the bar shut. It was a foregone conclusion that, twenty minutes later, both of us were shagging like animals. Unfortunately, Elaine was spotted leaving my room the next morning by one of the other crew. In this job a secret stays a secret for a matter of seconds after a third party is involved. Tony soon found out that, not only had I embarrassed him in the bar, but also that I had succeeded where he had so publicly failed. The humiliation he felt was compounded by the fact that the whole crew knew this as well, and a few who shared the general feeling of antipathy towards him couldn't help rubbing it in.      For some bizarre reason, Tony has never forgiven me.      Back in the briefing room, I felt the atmosphere cool noticeably. His expression indicated that he knew my face, but from where he wasn't quite sure. No great surprise. It had been a year since we last flew together, and this guy's shit list was so long that he needed a minute to trawl the memory banks. However, when he came back up holding the file, a satisfied smile split his face; a vision of Ellen Ripley's Alien with its secondary jaws bared flitted through my mind before I could stop it. One of his many revenge fantasies had started to play out, and I was clearly in for a hard time.      ''Ah, Crewmember Taylor,'' he said, oozing insincerity, ''nice of you to join us. Would it be OK with you if we got started?''      ''Aye, on you go, you fat bastard. Best get on before you die from a heart attack, you sweaty, festering pus bag!''      Of course, what I really said was, ''Sure, Tony. Sorry I'm a bit late,'' before taking a seat and keeping my head down. No point in rocking the boat, right? At least my eyes conveyed the original message, and if the prayers were working, he would be getting itchy bollocks any minute now.      ''Right then,'' he said, stopping briefly for an under the table scratch which I put down more to him being a sweaty git than divine intervention, ''not too difficult tonight people. We're booked less than half-full in every class, so there's no excuse for shoddy service.''      With my beer-induced fragility, I couldn't have faced one hundred and fifty miserable Economy punters, so I was very relieved that my seniority was enough to secure a working position in Business class. Even so, the passengers here often have a tendency towards throwing toys out of the cot, not least the businessmen. These alleged pillars of industry make million pound deals every week, but practically burst into tears if they don't get a FT newspaper. I mean, Jesus, if it's that important, get one delivered each morning – how tight can you be?      ''OK, that's that sorted,'' Tony said, when everyone knew their working position. ''Next – the safety questions.''      There were groans from one or two of the assembly – these questions are the bane of our life. Ostensibly, they are to ensure that we keep up to date on our safety procedures by presenting five randomly chosen questions at every briefing. In theory, not knowing the answer leads to being taken off the flight, and as you don't know what's coming you therefore have to know it all. However, because of the embarrassment that would result if the SiC didn't know the answer, the solutions are provided at the bottom of the page, and all one has to do is look while the chief's papers are left on the table. Unfortunately, Tony had his arm curved around his brief, like the school swot who won't let his classmates copy, and was obscuring the answers. This was yet another manifestation of his need to be in control at all times – he wasn't just hiding them from me; he had been keeping them out of everyone's view. His way of saying, 'that's right folks, I am the numero uno, don't mess with me' as if this was going to earn him any respect. Just about everyone who flies with Tony has already come to the conclusion that he is an arse before they leave the room. This time, I just knew that I was about to be singled out for his special treatment.      ''Michael, seeing as you were the last one to arrive, we'll start with you.''      Told you.      ''How long does the BCF fire extinguisher last?''      Phew. That old chestnut. This was one of the most common questions, and the rest must have been piss easy for him to choose it. The answer is fifteen seconds, which doesn't sound like much, but is actually a considerable amount of time when you're just standing there discharging the thing. I would guess that facing down a fire, with flames licking at your feet, it would suddenly seem like an incredibly short period, but I am yet to experience such conditions. Anyway, there are at least twelve such extinguishers on board a Boeing 747. When you consider the experts' opinion that any on-board fire not put out in two minutes isn't going out, any more would be superfluous.      There is a downside of course, because the chemical's power to wipe out combustion is only equalled when it turns its hand towards the ozone layer. One of these little babies makes a discarded fridge look environmentally friendly, which is why Homebase don't sell them. You may be saving your house from destruction after the mixing of alcohol and chip fat has gone tits up, but you're condemning your kids to severe sunburn later on in life. The only reason we still have them is that nothing comes close when it comes down to putting out a blaze on the aeroplane, not even the coffee.      I gave Tony my answer, and he looked disappointed that I had known it. The moron should have gone for a medical question because I'm absolutely clueless on that subject, unable to tell the difference between a heart attack and a cut finger. Sure enough, the next girl along was asked about symptoms of a stroke. I felt that my response of 'a not unpleasant cramping pain followed by discharge of a salty nature' would have fallen upon unsympathetic ears, and so kept quiet.      Following three more questions on subjects such as oxygen, drugs (life-saving not mood-altering), and ditching drills, the ordeal was finally over. The ditching questions always have me laughing, and for good reason. Firstly, as all schoolboy scientists know, water is incompressible. This translates into real life to mean that an aeroplane hitting water at two hundred miles an hour may as well fly into a mountain. Just ask Donald Campbell. Even if instant disintegration were avoided a rapid exit needs to be made, and getting off is where the hilarity reaches a new peak. The huge bouncy castle slides that detach to form life rafts have a capacity of over fifty people, which is where the fatal flaw lies. The rafts are over seven metres in length, so at least half the people have to run more than half that before they can sit down. Now the funny part: whereas the top, bottom and sides are rigid to prevent puncturing, the middle 'slide' part isn't. This is the reason that women must take off high-heeled shoes – the first selfish bitch that jumps wearing stilettos snaps both her ankles and fucks the slide for everyone else.      Now, when I called them bouncy castles, it wasn't just because of the big knob-like inflations sticking up on either side. I've done this in the hangar on dry land, and it's scarily reminiscent of the children's favourite birthday party accessory. Taking a step pushes the other half upwards and launches your opposite number over the side. Picture this, and now factor in the few possible reasons for this scenario, nearly all of which involve urgency in the middle of an ocean. I know our pilots are a bit gash, but even they would put it down on land given the choice. So, after a cargo fire or similar, the aeroplane would be rolling in the twenty-foot Atlantic waves, and anyone more than a metre from the door is going to be catapulted into the water. Forget getting back in, too. I've tried and succeeded during initial training, but there are a million metaphorical miles between the freezing, wave-filled ocean, and Hayes baths.      Best to stay out of the pool altogether.      Tony wrapped up the briefing with his usual propaganda bullshit. In common with all history's card-carrying despots, he is a stickler for all the rules as long as they are not applied equitably to him. Crew who cross him over the no smoking in uniform rule do so at their peril, but when someone once mentioned that, although not to be found in print anywhere, the 'thou shalt not sit on thy fat arse all flight whilst simultaneously filling your face with passenger meals' law should be observed in theory, he just laughed and talked of rank and privileges. He gets away with this all the time purely because it is the path of least resistance. Although the crew is technically working one man down, the antagonism that Tony brings to the party on the blue moon occasions that he gets involved actually detracts even further from the service than if he weren't there at all. His ultimate phrase (and I use the word 'ultimate' in all of its meanings) on customer service was one I hadn't heard before, and it could only have originated from an American daytime chat show.      ''Remember boys and girls,'' he said, playing his patronising joker early tonight, ''with passengers, never assume anything. If you assume, then you make an ass out of you and me.''      Well, bugger me if there wasn't a tear forming in my eye right there and then. Not because of the cutting insightfulness displayed by this one deep and thought-provoking sentence. No. It was there because the willpower required not to burst out in peals of laughter was actually hurting – not helped at all by the knowledge that all the crew had the same looks on their faces, as they quickly rose and headed for the door. A bottleneck soon formed but the lucky ones were out in seconds. I don't think I had seen such enthusiasm displayed since rumours abounded that Kylie was on our flight to Singapore. After being stuck in such close proximity not only to Tony, but also to twelve other people, the relative airiness of the corridor was very refreshing. As a group we headed back down the escalators, towards the security checkpoint, and for a brief time, we were free of our unbeloved leader as he gathered his paperwork together. I wasn't sure where the first outburst came from, but once the seal was broken the deluge began. Some were just giggling, but most had something to say, especially those for whom this was the first encounter.      ''What the hell was that all about?'' asked a bewildered mid-twenties Asian girl, her pretty brown eyes wide with shock.      ''I don't know, but I thought I was watching Dr. Phil,'' replied one of the Cabin Supervisors.      ''I tell you what,'' said one of the younger lads in a strong Scouse accent, ''I couldn't believe the shite he was going on about. The guy's a fucking nutte…''      Brian, as his name badge informed me, cut the last of his sentence dead because he had seen the fear in the eyes of his audience. In keeping with Universal law, Tony had appeared from nowhere (no mean feat given his size) and was standing directly behind our Brian for the delivery of the punchline.      Get out of that, my son. Sitting on the company bus that was to whisk us all to the aircraft side, I reflected on the incident in Security, and smiled a little. Against all odds, Brian had engineered a Houdini-like escape, using Tony's hostility towards anyone from further north than Watford. It had been a joy to watch and, given Tony's unpopularity, there had been no shortage of spectators. It seemed that, no sooner had Brian cast aspersions on the chief's sanity then a crowd gathered, having tasted blood in the water. This sort of behaviour starts early on in life, with the playground being the best example I can think of. In fact, I believe that the microsecond was invented to enable measurement of the time elapsed between the first shout of 'fight', and the last pupil arriving at the scene.      Tension mounted quickly in the audience as Tony's rapidly reddening face heralded the initial warning sign of a critical meltdown. It looked like Brian was totally fucked unless his opponent's aorta went pop, and even then sheer bloody-mindedness would probably see the job finished. Then came Tony's only, but fatal all the same, mistake. He allowed the Scouser to defend himself, by enquiring as to the content of his previous expression. Of course, in Tonyspeak there was a little variation in the phraseology.      ''What did you just say, you little streak of Scouse piss?''      No faulting the man's encyclopaedic knowledge of the language, but it was just the opening Brian needed. To suffer instant violence would have resulted in Tony's instant dismissal, although that would have provided little consolation to Brian if he were laid up in Hillingdon hospital with multiple crush injuries.      Instead, he now had a forum to speak, and an ideal opportunity to turn defence into attack. For decades, Northerners have had the deep-seated feeling that everything wrong with their lot is down to 'that London'. Of course, on the other side of the coin are plenty of Londoners who believe with equal ferocity that life would be much better if only half their tax money didn't jump on a train at Euston, thus beginning its tour of the North where it would keep the great unwashed in beer, ciggies, and Sky Sports.      Originally from the North myself, I disagree with both arguments. There is money in both parts, just as there is poverty. And, above all, there are people who are prejudiced against the very people they live amongst. My dad, for example, is a working class, normally liberal, man from outside Blackpool who places the ills of the country solely at the feet of council estate single mothers. As he is wont to tell anyone who will listen, 'if it was one television set after another they couldn't afford, instead of children, the bailiffs would be round within three weeks of delivery.'      Nevertheless, the generalisation that is rife in a country where so much opinion (and sometimes government policy) is based on what the tabloids write, has meant the North-South divide still exists today – despite all the emigration and immigration that has gone on in the cities over the last fifty years. Consequently, 'little streak of Scouse piss' was only going to land Tony in front of one discrimination board, and it wasn't the Committee for Urinal Abuse. In line with most of those who think the majority are against their minority, Brian was shit-hot on the rights of the individual, and shot straight into martyr mode.      ''What you got against people from Liverpool, eh? I'll have you for that. I'm going straight to the office now.''      ''Err…'' Tony was on the back foot briefly, sensing a shift in the balance of power, but he recovered, ''… yeah, OK. Come on then, you little bastard. Let's go and see what Lucinda thinks about what you said about your superior, shall we?''      That was when Brian delivered the coup de grace.      ''Yeah right, like a manager'll be here New Year night… hang on, what're you talking about?''      ''Everyone here heard you call me a nutter.''      ''You must be one, like,'' said Brian, scornfully, ''I was talking about Dr Phil on the telly the other day. He was going on about some shite about relationships.''      Both men instantly looked at the two girls that Brian had been chatting to, one seeking confirmation, the other fabrication. Both girls nodded. They knew it was a load of bollocks, but Tony's disapproval rating was still working against him, and that was the game shot. Now he had to back down in a way that would take care of the 'regionalist' jibe.      ''Oh, err… right,'' he stammered, still unsure. He even scrutinised the two witnesses again, looking for some indication that they were lying. The girls simply nodded again, and even though we all knew that we would pay dearly over the next couple of days, this was far too beautiful not to watch.      ''Well in that case, Brian,'' this last was through gritted teeth, ''let me say I'm sorry for reacting the way I did. Oh, and of course I was joking about the 'Scouse' thing.'' Tony chuckled nervously as if to emphasise his point. ''I love it up there, honest. Outstanding people –''      Had there been live betting available, I would have put the farm on his next few words.      ''Salt of the earth.''      We have a winner! The mating call of the English racist.      ''Yeah, all right,'' said Brian, magnanimous in victory (mainly because he knew how close he had come to a literally crushing defeat – if just one of those girls hadn't…), ''I'll let it go this time.''      The inference was obvious to all present: even though left unspoken, the words 'but next time…' hung around like a bad smell in a lift – fouling the atmosphere, but with everyone too polite to say anything. None of this was lost on Tony. He simply offered his hand to Brian, who took it nonchalantly at first, until he looked up into his eyes. Suddenly he realised that this was no handshake to end it all amicably – this was two boxers bumping gloves before the bout commences. For the first time the cocky Scouser had doubt written across his face, and I felt sorry for him.      Not too sorry of course, because Tony would now dedicate his life to bringing down his adversary in the most degrading manner possible, thereby neglecting to make everyone else's life difficult. The rest of us were off the hook, but Brian's 'fuck-up threshold' had just been lowered dramatically. From this point on, the poor bastard would not be able to put a foot right – he was about to find out the true meaning of persecution, and he knew it.      When it had become obvious that the show was over, the crowd dispersed and our crew was once again left queuing to pass through the checkpoint to the bus. The multitude of new security rules that have been introduced are, on the whole, totally ineffective. The basic format remains the same, only now they've added all the trimmings.      To highlight the all-round pointlessness, take the sharp object clampdown as an example. I am one hundred percent in favour of not allowing 8'' Bowie knives on board an aeroplane – you can put someone's eye out with one of those things. However, I am still waiting for the similar reasoning that banned tweezers. I mean, I am fully aware of the pain caused by a good plucking, and that the threat of being left with no eyebrows represents a clear and present danger, but I can't really see them becoming the terrorist's weapon of choice. Setting the ultimatum that, if their demands aren't met, then one hostage's hair will be removed every five minutes, won't really cut the mustard.      The terrorist's best chance would be if the authorities were too busy laughing to remember to arrest him.      The perspective sharpens even more when you consider that wine bottles and real glasses are still on board. Anyone sceptical about this should visit some of Glasgow's more unwholesome pubs for a very personal demonstration of how effective these can be as cutting weapons. Not for nothing does this fine city have a coma scale named after it.      The metal detectors are all very well and good, but for the fact that they seem to have been designed with a sensitivity dial that the operators must crank up when they're falling short on their search quotas. Most people would insist on a machine that shouts 'GUN', or 'KNIFE' as being the minimum required specification, but I would suggest that one that shouts 'TOO MUCH IRON IN YOUR BREAKFAST CEREAL' is slightly over the top.      In the end, progress had been quick and unhindered as we were the only crew leaving at that time. A quick glance at the board showed the next lot, which was Anna's NY flight, weren't due for another fifteen minutes. Stepping out into the night air was quite a shock to the system, because the temperature had dropped at least another couple of degrees. Some parked cars across the road were already white with frost, and everyone's breath was clearly visible. Still unable to face smoking a cigarette, I had hurried across the pavement to the waiting bus. Stepping on and throwing my bag onto the rack, I was more than a little happy to see that I was one of the first on. This meant I could claim my seat in the back corner: not just over the heater, but as far from Tony as possible, because he still ran on the archaic rule that the more senior crew sit at the front.      As the bus accelerated away slowly, I sat back and let the rising noise envelop me. Some people were talking into mobile phones; a final goodbye to friends and loved ones, 'til we meet again', even though that experience was only 36 hours away. Others were silent except for the incessant key tones of their text messaging. The rest were engaged in conversation whose subjects varied widely. The occasional effeminate squeals of 'oooh luurve' revealed one or two of the male crew were, shall we say, no stranger to a sausage supper, and the resulting high-pitched screams of laughter marked a couple of the girls as wonderfully termed 'fag hags'.      Brian, who had sensibly chosen exile as a seating position as well, was shaking his head. I caught his eye and nodded, one persecutee to another. Leaning forward, I offered my hand.      ''All right mate, I'm Mike. How's it going?''      ''Brian,'' he replied, shaking the proffered hand. ''I take it you've had a run in with this prick too?''      Given my initial reaction on entering the briefing, and Tony's subsequent treatment of me, he didn't have to be Mr Perceptive to work that one out, but it was nice when others noticed.      ''Yeah, not one to be crossed, it has to be said. It's a safe bet he'll be on your case for the rest of this trip. My condolences.''      Brian laughed a little at this.      ''Doesn't bother me,'' he said. ''I'm only doing this to fill in a bit of time before I work out what I'm doing with my Masters degree.''      That prompted a little laugh from me as well. Most people think that all cabin crew are as thick as shit, but that just isn't the case. There are many serving tea and coffee who have pieces of paper at home entitling them to defend murderers or do your taxes. I myself have a degree in chemical engineering, though to the naked eye it's really not apparent. I was once asked why, if that is the case, I am doing a job that involves serving low-grade food to three hundred frontal lobotomy survivors. My answer then, as it would be today, was that I get off the plane at the end of the flight with, on average, seven attractive women (the numbers were way down on this trip), and then go and get hosed for at least twenty-four hours on company expenses.      You do the maths.      ''So, you up for a few bevvies when we get in?'' he asked. ''Sarah and Laura fancy it.''      They were the two girls who had so valiantly defended him. Fast worker! One thing about us is that we plan ahead. Ten hours from the hotel, and all suffering, and we're talking about going on the piss already.      ''I'm up for it, as long as our pal's not involved.'' I said, inclining my head in Tony's direction.      ''Way ahead of you, mate,'' he replied, and left it at that.      Beep beep.      I searched my pockets and bag for about two minutes before I could find my mobile and retrieve the text message. I was expecting something from Phil detailing all the ways I would have to disinfect my bed before I could sleep in it again, but the reality was much better.      Relisd we lnd same tm – want coffee b4 home? Anna.      It took me a few moments to work out what the hell this was all about. I do consider text messaging to be an essential part of contemporary life, but there are so many dialects that it can sometimes be a foreign language. I'm sure there are some teenagers around who could get the whole of Shakespeare's works into a 150 character text, using blocks of three letters or less. Anyway, I guessed it was from Anna (starter for ten, there), and that she was inviting me for coffee before we went home at the end of our trips, as we were scheduled to land at similar times.      Maybe her text version was better. Whatever, I could deal with the reply.      OK – Txt u when I land     I'm not a fan of too many abbreviations; mainly because my textees end up phoning me to find out what I was going on about, thereby negating the point of the text in the first place. When I first started, I was writing out every single word – something I still do in emails, otherwise that's just being lazy – and it has only been the introduction of these predictive text phones that has saved the muscles in my right thumb from being the same size as the ones in my right arm. When I actually had a girlfriend the competition was almost running neck and neck, but with the advent of new technology, the loss of a willing sex partner, and a two-for-one offer on Kleenex at the local Boots, it has become, if you'll excuse the expression, a whitewash.      ''Good news?'' Brian asked, noticing the huge grin spreading across my face.      ''It certainly is, my friend,'' I replied. ''I've got a date with a honey when we get back.''      ''Nice one, mate,'' he said, a typical nosy Liverpudlian. ''You in with a chance, then?''      ''I don't think so. She comes with a boyfriend accessory pack included, but she's gorgeous and funny so it'll be worth living with the frustration. Who knows, maybe she'll fall for my charms and knock him on the head.''      ''Yeah right!'' he snorted. ''More like she's using you as a source of reasons for actually staying with the bastard.''      ''Look,'' I answered, actually laughing now, ''just piss off and leave me alone.''      Brian was laughing as well by now, and the trip suddenly didn't seem such a daunting prospect. Sometimes you do meet someone that you instantly hit it off with and, including Anna, my count for the day was two, though only one was shag material. The fact that we hadn't even boarded the aircraft yet should have had me thinking of unhatched chickens, but no. I was seeing Anna again much sooner than I could have hoped, Brian was keeping me entertained here and now, and I was starting to feel good about myself. I know it is a line from a tacky song, but I really should have known better. CHAPTER 4 The bus pulled alongside the aircraft about ten minutes later, parking up next to the embarkation steps. Before climbing them, I paused and looked around, taking in the view. The maintenance people had clearly taken advantage of the festive season's reduced flight schedule to give this plane a damn good wash, because it practically sparkled. Looking towards the tail I could see reflections in the mirror-like finish, especially in the top half of the livery. The company colours are basically two halves, the top a deep red and the bottom navy blue, separated by a thin white stripe. It is meant to symbolise the airline's patriotism by using all the colours of the Union Flag, but to me it just looks like a huge Cadbury's Double Decker wrapper.      No matter how often I get this close to the Boeing 747-400, the sheer size of the thing never ceases to amaze me. It measures nearly seventy metres in length from nose to tail, slightly more from wingtip to wingtip, and the tail stands around seventeen metres tall. That isn't exactly massive when compared to, say, an oil tanker, but considering this thing mingles with the birds (usually catastrophically – for the birds, anyway) that's big, believe me.      In order to carry this behemoth half way around the world, the fuel tanks can hold upwards of one hundred and fifty tons of kerosene, a large amount of it in the wings. At departure, the weight of this fuel means that the wings sag downwards, but during take off the lift forces cause them to curve up, thus creating one of the most beautiful sights in aviation, as the plane takes on the appearance of a majestic bird striving for altitude.      As I reached the top of the stairs the air conditioning hit me full in the face with this season's scent, eau de Boeing. There are well over three hundred seats and it's totally impractical to clean the covers after each flight. On average, this translates to two different bodies every single day sweating, flaking, sneezing, and being generally unhygienic onto each seat. Couple this with all the trodden-in food, spilt milk, and non-housetrained children, and a unique aroma is born. The stench gets all over your clothes, can't be removed or cleaned, and turns your stomach on first contact. In that respect it's much like my mother's twelve-year-old cat, though Tiddles probably has a lower flea population.      Stepping over the door sill put me in the First Class galley, with its grey dimpled plastic non-slip floor, ovens and chillers (also with grey fascias), and its myriad metal containers, holding anything from cutlery to baby food – in fact everything required to give these elite passengers a decent return for their two thousand quid. I crossed over the galley and turned right, into the Business cabin, heading for the mid-galley and my crew seat. The grey theme was carried on here too, albeit in a cleaner and brighter fashion. The carpet was a light charcoal, flecked with tiny red, white and blue teardrops, as well as larger blobs of red wine and coffee. The solid parts of the chairs were black, mock ebony, and the upholstery was similar to the carpet, but with a larger number of smaller teardrops giving the impression that the seats had been sprinkled with 'Hundreds and Thousands'. Where the uniform got its orange from is anyone's guess. The walls of the cabin had been left the original manufacturer's white, although the interior designers had slapped framed black and white pictures depicting various cities of the world all over the place, to the point that I couldn't walk through without feeling I was in a travel agents. Once through the Business section, I reached the mid-galley, and my seat.      Having made sure there was all the necessary equipment for saving my life (the punters have a better chance if I'm still around to help), my next task was to ensure there was enough food on board for the Business passengers. This was very important to get right, as there aren't that many shops that deliver to 37,000ft.      The flight was only going to be half full, so only two out of the three ovens contained racks. There was also one less tray trolley in the chiller cabinets below. Whilst my Cabin Supervisor, a fortyish chubby blonde woman named Penny, was sorting out the menus and putting on a brew, I went through the menu with the catering official.      ''So that's ten duck starters,'' he said, ''and ten mushroom. Then you've got ten steak, seven of the curry, and three veggies.''      He consulted his clipboard again, his tongue slightly protruding from between his lips as if to provide visual confirmation that he was concentrating, before looking back up.      ''Oh yeah,'' he said, as if suddenly remembering something, ''you've also got ten desserts, and ten cheese.''      This made me take notice.      ''What if the punters want both?'' I asked.      ''Tough shit mate. This is New Year's night – what d'you want? Blood?''      With that, he turned on his heel, and shot up the stairs where he was no doubt going to tell Laura that she too could whistle for her cheese and fruit. It would be more vital for her as well, because upstairs would probably house the majority of the Business passengers. For some reason everyone wants to sit upstairs, obviously believing the service to be better up there. Actually, that's a lie. The upper deck is not the popular choice for absolutely everyone. I once had an American woman who point blank refused to go up the stairs when she found out that her seat was there. Further patient questioning revealed that her aversion was based on the fact that she had just spent forty pounds on having her hair blow-dried and she didn't want the wind to ruin it. She was convinced that this was a convertible, and the captain put the roof down in flight. A brief insight there into the unqualified, never-ending lunacy of Americans.      Suddenly Tony's voice came over the PA, warning of the imminent arrival of the passengers. As I finished my coffee and put on my cabin jacket, Brian came storming towards me from the front of the aircraft with a face like thunder. He was muttering under his breath something about fat, ugly bastards and their tendency towards animal husbandry.      ''You all right mate?'' I asked, with all evidence pointing to the contrary.      ''No I'm not,'' he hissed, ''that arse has already bollocked me for my shoes and not doing my tie properly, and now he's just called me all the way from the back. Apparently he's doing an assessment on me, so I'd better watch my fucking step. Wanker!''      ''Don't cross him, mate,'' I warned. ''He'll have you in front of Lucinda the second we get back, if you give him any reason. If I were you, I'd just keep my head down and not cock it up.''      ''Yeah, I know. But he just gets right on my tits, and I'm trying hard not to deck him.''      ''Probably a good move,'' I said, with a grin, ''because that would really mark you down in the 'people skills' section.''      ''Yeah, you're right. Anyway, here come the bastards. I'd better get down the back before he bollocks me again.''      ''See you later, mate.''      Penny came back into the galley then, and was slightly put out to see me still there. I hadn't spoken to her much, but she slotted neatly into the neurotic divorcee stereotype. There are many of these women flying around the world today; women who were married in their early twenties – usually to a pilot, or fellow crewmember – and then ended up separated ten or fifteen years later because their husbands had failed to resist the abundance of fresh meat that joined the airline every month. What remained was a bitter and twisted husk, their attractive years way behind them now, with a hatred of men in general, and a pathological hatred of male crew. They tend to flap under pressure, and hide the lack of ability in their job by being aggressive to each and every person under their command, whilst at the same time relying on these underlings to carry them.      ''Into the cabin please, Michael,'' she ordered, in her best school mistress voice, ''you're not being paid to stand around and chat.''      I turned to go, mumbling, ''yes, miss'' as I left, though quietly enough to remain unheard. There was no sense in pissing her off straight away. Just the minor detail that I was a single bloke would be enough to do that before the flight was over. The beauty of Business class is the larger seat. Not only are the punters more comfortable than those in 'cattle' class at the back, the larger size means fewer places. The small cabin downstairs has thirty, whereas the equivalent area in economy would accommodate more than twice that number. Put simply, less passengers equals less hassle. Obviously there will occasionally be a Grade One arsehole who skews this equation entirely, but the harmonious marriage of beverage and eye drops usually has them more concerned with the toilet facilities than the customer service. Never bite the hand that makes your coffee.      I stood in my section of the cabin, slouching against a seat back so that I didn't obstruct the aisle. The first few passengers that trickled past were clearly heading towards Economy, as they were all sporting what I could charitably describe as 'leisure clothing'. I know that it is advisable to wear comfortable attire, but a lilac and mint green shell suit, for Christ's sake. They're not a right – they're not even a privilege in my book – and although these outfits may afford the wearer some degree of comfort, they still have the main feature of making them look a tit.      An old woman, clad in bright pink crimplene that just didn't go with her blue-rinsed hair, stopped right next to me looking from her boarding card to the seat numbers around her, and back again. I knew exactly what was coming and, more importantly, the accent it was coming in.      ''Stewarrrd,'' she whined, the standard issue, nasal American drawl crucifying the English language and placing the emphasis on the wrong syllables as usual, ''is one of these seats miiiine?''      The boarding card was thrust in my face, so much so that I had to lean back to focus on the print.      ''No madam, you have seat 52A,'' I was giving her my most radiant false smile because I actually wanted to beat her to within an inch of her life, such was the annoyance level of her voice, ''which you'll find all the way down on your right hand side.''      ''Don't we get one of these big ones?'' she asked, unaware of how close she was coming to hospitalisation. I felt it would have been a poor career move to point that out, so instead I smiled and shook my head apologetically. Sometimes, having to suck up to these morons, whom I wouldn't trust to boil water, really pisses me off. The anger I felt rose even more when, about ten rows past the galley, she stopped and asked Brian the same thing. Luckily, he had clocked her speaking to me first so he still sent her towards the stern, only this time misdirecting her down the other aisle. Armed with limited intelligence and an 'A' seat, she was going to be in all sorts of trouble further up the alphabet.      Boarding next was a group of young student types, comprising two couples, most likely taking advantage of the cheaper fares available at this time of year. They were either in their late teens or early twenties and, judging by their high spirits and swaggering gait, they had already been topping up from the night before. A scruffy dark haired lad wearing t-shirt and ripped jeans, and an attractive blonde girl in crop top and mini-skirt who had obviously missed the latest weather report, were relying on one another to stay upright. I made a mental note to let Trisha, the Economy supervisor, know about them. Not only would the amount of alcohol they drank during the flight have to be monitored, but also it was a given that they'd be heading straight for the toilet together the second the lights went down.      Why anyone wants to shag in aircraft toilets is beyond me; the required body positioning alone means both parties run the risk of serious injury. Undoubtedly, the need for privacy is the major driving force behind this practice, as many a couple have come a cropper by wrongly believing a blanket can provide adequate camouflage, but the unsanitary nature of aircraft bathrooms means that only the pissed and the terminally horny can bear the stench long enough to come. I've never done it (shagged in the bog, I mean), though considering that, as a member of the crew, I have access to nice comfy bunks away from the public eye, choosing to use the toilet for anything other than its intended purpose would suggest the need for several high-priced psychiatrists.      ''Mike!'' a female voice shouted from across the cabin. I looked around to see my co-worker Jane waving frantically with one hand, whilst holding a baby in the other. I went over to her, leaving a businessman holding his overcoat out into thin air. Well, the wardrobes were clearly marked (not with the word 'toilet' either, but that never stops half the punters trying to climb into them for a piss), and Jane looked like she needed help yesterday.      ''I didn't know we were running a crèche here,'' I said.      ''Neither did I,'' she replied, her tone hinting at a breakdown. ''Some bitch asked me to hold the kid while she got her boarding card out from one of her bags. Then she asks me where 36K is, so I tell her… Shhhhh now.''      This last was for the baby who had chosen that time to start warming up his voice so as not to pull a vocal cord when the real screaming got going. The shushing seemed to work for the time being, so Jane carried on.      ''Before I know it, this cow's walked past me and off to her seat, spouting some crap about the baby liking my face.''      ''What a bitch, eh?'' I sympathised.      ''Hey. Watch your language in front of the little bastard.''      ''Oh, sorry. So why did you need me so urgently? You know I can't carry babies – they come out in a rash.''      She laughed at that one, as, worryingly, did the baby, and pointed into the First Class galley behind her. Lying in a pile were four bags of the type favoured by new mothers around the world. They were padded, flower patterned shoulder bags, and held everything that a new mum thought she would need for a trip, i.e. the entire contents of her house.      There seems to be an ongoing worldwide competition to see which parent can lug the most baby products over the longest distance. A woman on a New York trip two years ago would have been the runaway leader with five bags, a baby seat, her handbag and a plastic bag containing duty-free Marlboro and gin, had she not been disqualified for leaving her baby behind. True story – she was so focussed on not forgetting any of her baggage, that she was almost off the aircraft before a crewmember pointed out that the car seat and baby were notably absent.      Risking severe spinal injury, I managed to get all four bags onto both my shoulders, and stagger after Jane. The straps were already cutting like cheese wire into my skin, convincing me that the mother's pain receptors must have shut down permanently after the trauma of childbirth because in the short time it took me to reach her seat, my shoulders were on fire, and I had lost all feeling in my hands. As I started putting all the bags into the overhead bins, the woman started squealing that she had to have instant access to all of them, a point emphasised using the 'martyr to the human race' facial expression that all mothers of children under two years old have perfected. I patiently explained that they would obstruct the aisle in the event of an emergency, and that she could have them after takeoff, but this reasonable argument fell on deaf ears. To listen to her ranting, one could easily have come to the conclusion that her baby would be dead within five seconds of the locker being closed. I simply slammed the hatch shut, snapped the words, ''it's for safety'' (oh, the shit we get away with using that cover story), and stormed off.      Honestly, just because they've contributed to the planet's overpopulation problem they think they're entitled to special treatment. Bollocks. All they do is moan, get in our way during the meal service because the baby's milk needs heating up, and then act indifferent when the little bastard keeps the whole cabin awake with its screaming. At least, I thought, she was sitting in economy and was therefore somebody else's problem.      When I returned to my cabin, the businessman was still holding his jacket and looking around, sighing in an exaggerated fashion. We made eye contact and he asked, as long as it was not too much trouble, if I could possibly hang his coat up for him.      ''Of course sir,'' I answered, sincerity personified even though the word 'twat' was repeating over and over in my head.      ''You know,'' he continued, ''I was standing here for ten minutes. You saw I had a jacket, and still you walked away. It's just not good enough.''      Oh dear. Paging Dr. Optrex.      ''I'm very sorry sir,'' I said in my most contrite tone of voice, ''but my colleague urgently needed my help.''      ''Yes, I saw that,'' he countered, ''You obviously believe some Economy passenger's bags to be more important than my jacket.''      Did I mention this gentleman was only 5'4?      ''I didn't mean to appear rude sir,'' I said, really turning on the charm now, ''but the lady's bags were causing an obstruction and I had to move them before somebody fell and hurt themselves.''      This took the wind out of his sails instantly – he couldn't have a go at me anymore without appearing to be unconcerned about the welfare of his fellow passengers, and only the most dedicated of bastards would do that. Instead, he huffed and puffed a little and handed over his coat to me.      ''Thank you. Can I have your boarding card please?'' I asked.      ''I know exactly where my seat is, thank you very much,'' was the curt reply. Was he still living with his mother as well?      ''I'm sure you do sir,'' I said, trying so hard to keep my cool, ''but I still need the card to put on the coat hanger, so I can return your jacket to you at the end of the flight.''      ''Oh all right,'' he bleated, handing over his card and returning to his aisle seat, though not before giving his last order, ''and get me a Financial Times, and an orange juice.''      I couldn't get back into the galley fast enough. Keeping my job throughout the years has been dependent on not, under any circumstances, telling passengers that I'd be grateful if they would kindly 'get to fuck'. Safely away from the cabin, hidden in the alcove under the upper deck stairs, I allowed myself a few slow, deep breaths in order to calm down.      Everyone who does this job has to deal with muppets like this on a daily basis, and most can cope without bursting into tears. The real trick, however, is to let the bastards know who is the better person, without resorting to violence or swearing. It's all very well wiping a steak round the toilet bowl and serving it up to them, but they can't know that you've done that. The true revenge is one that both parties know has happened, but where proof of intent is impossible to attain. Experience and timing are everything.      I stood in the galley entrance, the previous day's newspaper in my left hand (even the press get New Year off), tray with a glass of OJ in the other, and watched. Spotting my mark after a couple of minutes, I left the sanctuary of my hidey-hole for the relative danger of the cabin. I reached this tosser's seat and turned to face rearwards, at the same time moving slightly out of the aisle and into his seat area. As he reached for the offered newspaper, the portly gentleman who I had seen moving through the cabin arrived. Just as I had anticipated, he was unable to resist the gap I'd left by not standing wholly in the aisle, and in the process of squeezing past me, his shoulder bag knocked the glass cleanly off the tray and all over my shortarse passenger's beige trousers; a direct hit which had the wet patch starting over his crotch and spreading out nicely.      ''Awww, gee buddy, I'm real sorry,'' said the big guy immediately, thereby absolving me of blame before the recriminations could even start. Even better, I quickly assumed the role of the concerned crewmember.      ''Oh dear,'' I said, pushing past the American's bag on my way back to the galley, ''I'll just go and get you some paper towels, sir. Would you like another orange juice?''      ''No, I bloody wouldn't. Just get the sodding towels will you?''      ''Of course, sir,'' I replied, and left him telling the large American that he should 'watch where he was bloody going'.      When I finally returned with a clump of the kitchen roll, Mr Bright (I checked his boarding card) was alone again, ineffectively brushing his trousers.      ''Here you go, sir,'' I said, handing the towels to him because customer service only goes so far, ''can I get you anything else?''      ''No…no,'' he stammered, proof that visible incontinence wasn't conducive to being successfully aggressive, ''er, just some more towels, please.''      Yes, he actually said please. Victory was mine and the flight hadn't even departed. Believe me, when it comes to psychological warfare, never, ever fuck with cabin crew.
Archived comments for Bad Altitude - Chapters 3/4
expat on 13-03-2006
Bad Altitude
Hi, Jack (squawk 7500)

Like Andrea suggested last week, it might be an idea to split your subs into 2K -3K bites; you'll get more reads/comments that way because of viewer's available time and also the pain of taking in 9K on a screen.

Anyway, I've downloaded both parts and am getting through the book bit by bit. Not bad so far!

Steve.

Author's Reply:

red-dragon on 13-03-2006
Bad Altitude
I'd go with Andrea's suggestion - break it down into easier chunks to read.

Author's Reply:

expat on 14-03-2006
Bad Altitude
Back again, I've read both parts and I'll comment on them in one go. Firstly, a good title; nice play on words. The opening was good too: as you know, a weak start can break a potential reader's interest. In my case you had a guaranteed read because I once had to double up as HS748 flying spanner/cabin crew for a couple of months and could associate with some of what you describe. Anyway, the four chapters were very readable and the characters solid enough but I felt that it wouldn't have hurt to back off on the humour pedal a little. Not because the writing wasn't funny but because the gems were being swallowed up in the consistent gallop, if you get my meaning. Overall, it was very entertaining but perhaps regular pax (and who isn't, nowadays) might feel a little miffed about being blanket-categorised as moronic. Admittedly, some ARE!

You might like to look up Skytrucker (Allen Murray) in the Members List; like you, he's a 'fly' and had a book on his aviation experiences published, with another one planned.

Steve :^)


Author's Reply:

Nevada on 17-03-2006
Bad Altitude
Hi Jack,
Very funny stuff. I never knew about the steak round the toilet trick. I'll stick to salad from now on, I reckon. I really enjoyed the read but like the other readers, I felt you might get more reviews by splitting it down into smaller chunks. Reading the whole piece in one go is daunting. That being said however, I was into it so carried on right to the end. Very amusing indeed. I hope you got a lot off your chest - especially the bit about the older air stewardesses. (Ps my partner is an ex stewardess) - she hated the passengers as well!

Author's Reply:


Bad Altitude - Chapters 1/2 (posted on: 10-03-06)
Story following Mike Taylor, an airline steward, as he parties around the world, dealing with moronic passengers. This is the first two chapters of the novel, available on www.jack-leonard.com More to follow...

CHAPTER 1 Sometimes there are mornings that are but a whisker from achieving perfection. Mornings where the only intrusion into the glorious silence is soothing birdsong, and the golden sunlight is diffused by the wooden blinds such that it merely caresses the skin. Mornings where the absence of a loved one's glowing face from the adjacent pillow is soon explained by the delicious aroma of freshly brewing coffee and toasting bagels permeating the bedroom air.      Never seems to happen in my world, though.      In fact, the first day of my most memorable year to date couldn't have been more different. I awoke to find myself painfully wedged into an armchair with the harsh winter sun streaming through open curtains, and the only thing permeating the smoky atmosphere was that unique odour achieved by men after far too much high-strength lager.      I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, like a child pretending that the nasty monster isn't really under the bed, but no amount of trying could rediscover the comfort of sleep. I had little choice but to reapply for admission to the land of the living. Very carefully, making sure not to expose ultra-sensitive eyes too much, I slowly blinked away the blurriness until I could make out my surroundings. This didn't entirely work. It wasn't surprising that confusion reigned supreme within my addled brain, given that it was New Year's Day. Apart from the partially crushed beer cans littering the stained burgundy carpet like spent artillery shells, and the cigarette mountains rising from two stolen pub ashtrays, all that remained of the previous night were patchy memories. Worse still, each recollection had a tendency to fade the moment it appeared, leaving afterimages that were familiar yet undetermined; as if I had been just a remote observer of the revelry, and not a far too willing participant.      As always following a heavy night on the piss, and especially after New Year's Eve, the main priority was to remove most of this confusion before attempting any form of movement – in effect a ritual not dissimilar to crash victims wiggling their extremities, although I doubt the paramedics include the extremity I was most concerned about.      First up was location, which had already been established as my own living room. There have been occasions where I've had to phone a friend, but this time I'd avoided the irritation of wandering unknown streets searching for non-existent taxis. Trust me, a certain amount of self-reflection is required if you find you've ended up in Aberdeen just to get laid.      However, I was so tightly packed into the armchair that, unless I'd pulled the smallest woman in the world, the second box – company – could also be ticked. In fact, the closest human (often described as close to human himself) was my Glaswegian flatmate who had somehow secured the settee as his bed. True, the mother of all hangovers was still in the post, but at least Phil would be spared acute backache. In a way, I counted this failure to ensnare a member of the fairer sex as a partial success. I might be selling myself a bit short but, as pissed as I had been, the only female likely to approach me after midnight would have been desperate, slaughtered, and, going on past experience, a minger.      Continuing the assessment, I was happy to report that there were no personal crises such as missing limbs or, far worse, public nakedness, which meant my sole problem nestled snugly in box number four – commitments. Basically, at eight o'clock that evening a Global Air 747 would lift off en route to Boston, and the company had seen fit to put me on it. To me, this was right up on the desirability scale alongside genital electrocution and dating Anthea Turner. At New Year, the combination of miserable buggers and bargain fare soapdodgers always creates an atmosphere of depression to rival a Smiths concert, and serving them was the last thing in the world I wanted to be doing with a hangover.      Hoping against hope that, all evidence to the contrary, it was only ten in the morning, I glanced at my wrist and was dismayed to see that my expensively fake Rolex had shed both its hands. They made a soft, pleasant sound as they rattled within the glass casing, but singularly failed in their primary duty of telling the time. As the tarnished carriage clock on the mantelpiece had also stopped sometime during the Great War, that was no use either. I could only estimate the time at around three in the afternoon. It was unlikely to be much earlier as that was the time that the sun usually dipped low enough to shine through the window, just as it couldn't be much later because dusk had yet to infringe on the clear winter's day.      In order to gain confirmation from the kitchen clock, as well as the therapeutic qualities of strong coffee and multiple sachets of Resolve, I unfolded my cramped, aching body from the confines of armchair and shuffled, monk-like, towards the door. I had to squeeze between the chair and the threadbare, green velour settee that formed the long part of the L-shape, and in doing so banged my left knee. This disturbed Phil and he awoke with a start, the bright sunlight forcing him to guard his eyes as he too came to terms with his surroundings. He struggled to lick dry lips with an even drier tongue, before attempting to speak.      ''Bastard!'' he croaked, voice weak and raspy through the abuse of cigarettes and alcohol. ''What time is it?''      Personally, I reckon this must be the second most asked question on New Year 's Day, just above 'where am I?' but way below 'what did you say your name was again?' Because I couldn't answer him, I settled instead for a noncommittal grunt and headed once again for the kitchen, leaving Phil to push himself further into the sofa. A quick fart, a scratch of the balls, and he was instantly snoring again.      There are probably some people, mainly that part of the population with breasts, that would find this offensive and disgusting, but I was used to Phil's endearing post-alcohol demeanour. If he stayed true to form then this kip would be closely followed by two Resolve sachets, a pint of Irn Bru, and finally a Heinz All-Day Breakfast in a tin. Unfortunately, this sort of 'cure' is effective for exactly one hour, which is the time it takes for the saturated fat and animal entrails to firmly embed themselves in the stomach. From that moment on, the feeling of lethargic nausea is second only to the feeling that, very soon, a large amount of toilet paper is going to be required.      Washing the dregs of beer from a glass, I threw two pints of water down my throat, along with what turned out to be the last dose of Resolve, and then made myself a coffee so strong that it could have resurfaced motorways. While the caffeine coursed through my veins, no doubt swerving to avoid several alcohol molecules, some of the cobwebs in my head were blown out and a memory popped up. This time it stuck. The complete story was still hazy, but I did know that it involved a mobile phone, my most recent ex, and the 'C' word. Up until that point the split had been quite amicable, but words like 'burnt' and 'bridges' were now starting to seem appropriate. Funny, really, the effect that word has on the ladies. Only four letters, unless being used collectively (what would that be? Probably a 'bunch', as in 'those Man U fans are a bunch of…'), and yet to aim it at a woman, especially if romantically involved with her, ranks just above sleeping with her sister and her mother on the list of possible hate crimes.      Mind you, once the word is used, it's like opening Pandora's Box – pun intended – and the gloves come off. Admittedly it was my initial, alcohol-fuelled, outburst that had caused tensions to escalate, but to scream down the phone, in front of all her mates, that I was, quote: 'a small-pricked, emotionally stunted, übermoron, with all the social graces of an after-fart follow through, and the sexual prowess of a sedated panda' unquote, was a bit unfair.      Ah well, that's the last time I go out with anyone who has a degree in English. At least she had the good grace to dump me at the end of November, thereby saving me the full fifty pounds I had pencilled in for her Christmas present.      Back at the kitchen table, the feeling of guilt at being so nasty to her in the first place receded like snow under a flame as I suddenly remembered certain photographs that could potentially find their way onto the Internet. Such happy thoughts were the final straw, and I just let my head drop onto the beer-ringed, ash-covered table. From this vantage point, I could see the kitchen from the perspective of a small child, or Paul Daniels, and it looked no better from there.      Sorry, let me explain. Phil and I live in a block of flats near the river Thames, in the thriving metropolis that is Staines town centre. The location is great, being close to all amenities, and only ten minutes from the airport. The flat itself is pretty big, comprising a longish narrow hallway with two large bedrooms off one side, and a huge living room off the other. A door at the end of the corridor leads to a spacious kitchen overlooking the river, with the bathroom nestled alongside. On paper, it sounds ideal for two thirty-something bachelors, doesn't it?      One problem, though.      The flats were built in the seventies, and the landlord hasn't seen fit to touch them since. It had been made crystal clear to us that any redecorating would have to be a self-funded venture. Consequently, we have a kitchen that even Huggy Bear would describe as a little bit pimpy. The designers were definitely in transition between their brown and orange periods, and circles on wallpaper must have been the latest thing. The nappy brown Formica worktops contrast nicely with the once white electric cooker and our bronchitic fridge. The bright orange cupboard doors really set you up nicely for the day, and to be honest, the best that can be said about the brown vinyl floor is that it can, and often does, hide a multitude of sins. Under the worktops, instead of cupboards, are several storage spaces, each concealed by a purple curtain.      No, I'm kidding. The curtains are brown, too.      Whoever designed the whole thing probably had words like 'natural', 'innovative', and 'pastel' flitting through his warped mind. One thing he completely failed to consider, though, was the truly nauseating effect the ensemble would have thirty years down the road on a hangover sufferer desperately trying to hold onto his stomach contents. After an hour or so drinking coffee and staring out of the window, the clock showed that it was half past four. The nausea had abated by now, to be replaced with a textbook case of the shakes as the rising caffeine level smashed headlong into dwindling residual alcohol. As I tried one more time to summon enough enthusiasm to get ready for work, Phil peeled himself off the sofa and shuffled his way into the kitchen.      At six inches over six foot tall, with a build that should make him a shoe-in for the Scottish rugby team, Phil with a hangover often reminds me of those elephants who eat fermented fruit in the jungle. Staggering around, bumping into things with a look of both hurt and betrayal, he is invariably a pitiful sight. That particular day, however, I needed all my pity for another, more deserving, project.      Me.      After a couple of false starts, Phil managed to make a coffee and manoeuvre himself onto the chair opposite. Close up, he could have been a poster boy for the next self-righteous binge-drinking campaign. Thinning brown hair stuck out in all directions, and his chubby, moon face was an off-white colour that really accentuated the suitcases under his bloodshot eyes. It seemed to me that he was way beyond help – even from Irn Bru – and this made me feel slightly better. Self-pity is always more palatable when there's someone worse off than you.      ''There'd better be some Resolve left, Michael,'' he moaned, with only a small trace of his roots in the way he spoke, ''or you're dead.''      ''Never mind the Resolve,'' I replied, not wanting to broach that subject just yet, and certainly not missing the fact that he was using the long version of my name, ''how could you let me call Sandra last night?''      What I can only describe as an evil grin spread across Phil's stubbled face.      ''And I should have stopped you… why?''      There was no answer to that, but still I sulked a bit. He was not his flatmate's keeper, true, but the point was that he would have been able to stop me. I really hate people who, no matter how much alcohol they consume, are in total control of their actions and can instantly recall everything the following day. On most occasions, Phil has this ability in spades, which has often proved a source of great embarrassment. Let's face it, if beer goggles have led you into the arms of a girl with, shall we say, a nice personality, the last thing you need is some bastard reminding you of this fact for the next two years.      ''Ah, well,'' I said, ''if she goes off like that just because of one little word, I'm probably best off out of it.''      Phil snorted loudly, diverting some of his coffee up through the nostrils and back into the cup. All of a sudden he perked up, and there was no longer any evidence of a crippling hangover. I had no idea what had put such a grin on his face, but it was painfully clear that, only sixteen hours in, I had already made his year.      ''Mike,'' he said, having wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt, ''I think she went off like that because you'd just told her you shagged that bird in Bangkok the week before you split up.''      ''I actually said that?''      ''Aye. Oh, and you gave the Bangkok bird an extra two points out of ten for taking it up the arse. It's no wonder you're single, ya wee fanny!''      It was quite difficult to argue with that. There was always a new and better way to spectacularly end the relationships I had, and I found it every time, more often than not at the bottom of a beer can. Never, ever, drink and dial!      Still chuckling, Phil heaved himself up and headed towards the cupboard that normally housed the Resolve. Sensibly, I decided that there wouldn't be a better time to have a locked door between us, and legged it to the toilet. Mere seconds after the bolt had slid home, a despondent cry followed me up the corridor that led to the bathroom.      ''Aw, no! You bastard, you had the last one!''      Seconds later his voice penetrated the bathroom door again, this time much closer.      ''I cannae believe you did that,'' he yelled, reverting to his native accent as he often did when angry or drunk. ''You're deid! You cannae stay in there for ever, ya wee bastard.''     ''Calm down, mate,'' I shouted back. ''Look, if you check in my cabin bag, there's some Nurofen and Andrews. Just chuck it all in a glass – you'll never know the difference.''      This was met first by silence, and then by a combination of mumbling and shuffling – the boy had gone for it. Good news for me, although I really hoped that Phil was aware of the laxative effects of that particular brand of salts. If he was in the same boat as me, the last thing he needed was something to 'grease the wheels'. The race was suddenly on to finish in the bathroom before he had literally pressing business to deal with. Not that I needed any encouragement. Already in trouble over the Resolve, the thought of being pulped by a faeces-covered Phil was having quite a laxative effect on me as well.      Good old-fashioned fear – the ultimate colonic. Feeling about a stone lighter, I finished up in the bathroom and made for my bedroom, passing Phil on the way. Going by the manner of his walk, the salts seemed to be doing exactly what it said on the tin.      ''Is it safe to go in?'' he said, his look betraying the fact that he had no choice either way.      ''Well,'' I replied, ''on the one hand there's no need to send a chemical spillage team in, but on the other, I wouldn't like to be the fish who meets that one coming the other way.''      ''I'll get you back for this, ya wee bastard,'' he said, clearly not a happy bunny. ''Fuckin' Andrews, indeed.''      Phil rushed by me, simultaneously trying to lock the door, struggle with his pants, and prevent an accident. It put me in mind of those Chinese plate spinners, though, of course, with more at stake than just a little shattered crockery. Clearly audible through the door was a massive clang as the seat was crushed between porcelain and flesh. Next came a sound similar to an over-moist whoopee cushion deflating, followed by an exclamation of relief the likes of which I hadn't heard since the last time I delved into our collection of dodgy German videos. I made a mental note never again to underestimate the power of Andrews salts.      A few unsteady steps later and I was safely in my room. A relatively large room considering it's in a flat, I have managed to make it look tiny by filling it with junk, over and above the shitty, fire-sale furniture that the rent pays for. Opposite the door is a large window offering me a cracking view of Staines and, on the days I forget to close the curtains, Staines a view of my crackers. Below this, a desert island in a sea of junk, is the bed; the kind of bed that you only get in rental properties. The mattress is so old that it doesn't so much give when I lie down as try to eat me, having been sold, inherited, and given away several times before finally being dumped in a landfill. I guess the landlord found it there whilst searching for our settee.      The rest of the bedroom 'suite' consists of a bedside table which collapses if asked to bear anything heavier than a half-full coffee cup, a knackered Victorian-looking wardrobe held together by woodworm, a set of white B&Q drawers, and a padded bench at the foot of the bed, the reason for which I have never been able to fathom. Magazines, discarded CD cases, clothes, and my Playstation's umbilical cords take up the remaining floor space, providing hours of painful fun during nighttime toilet trips.      Despite my sleeping on the chair, the bed was noticeably unmade, with the duvet lying where it had fallen the previous day. I often wonder if this is similar to the philosophical question about trees in the forest: If a man falls out of bed and there is no woman there to see it, is the bed ever made?      From a personal point of view, the only time that my bed ever receives any more than a cursory throw-over of the quilt is when my parents come to stay. Then I am forced to change the sheets lest their rankness (the sheets, not my parents) cause my inheritance to be brought forward by a few years, and a few uncomfortable questions to be asked at the subsequent coroner's inquest. If I checked into a hotel, and found the bedding in the same state as mine usually is, I'd be downstairs tout de suite asking for a new room and whatever freebies I could get my sticky little mitts on. Blokes are not worried about filth; they're only worried when it isn't their filth.          Since I left home after my A-levels, and found out that the Laundry fairy was actually my mum, I have resided in the grey area between cleanliness and Bob Geldof. Whereas I don't need jabs every time I go to bed, I don't exactly change the linen every week either, and so thanked all the angels in Persil heaven that Christmas was a scheduled change. All I needed now was to be surrounded by six weeks worth of sweat and pubes, and it would have necessitated a deep clean within seconds.      I switched on the portable TV, which was threatening to flatten the clearance-sale MDF drawers (as with all pre-1990's tellys, 'portable' simply meant that only two people were required to move it between rooms), and surfed the usual mindless bollocks that they put on over the festive season as a filler before the next Bond movie or E-bloody-T. Not that I cared what was on. I was only after background noise while I lay and waited for Phil to finish in the bathroom.          Ten minutes later, the sound of the toilet flushing echoed around the flat, and I could hear Phil muttering to himself as he returned to the settee. I waited a further ten or so minutes for safety reasons before leaving my room, but as it happened I needn't have worried. Phil's recent adventure with the Andrews didn't seem like it was going to cause any long-term olfactory damage, even when mixed with the resident smell of damp that has held tenancy longer than we have. At one time or another, everyone has lived in a place with this. It is that musty kind of damp, prevalent in student households, which suggests that occasionally sitting down to pee might not be such a bad idea after all.      My main objective was to make myself look slightly less like a suffering piss-head, and more like a responsible member of society. This was no picnic with our bathroom, as the kitchen's seventies motif continued through the little corridor with a vengeance. Once again, practicality was sacrificed every single time for bad taste, and whoever thought that a bathroom suite shaped like oyster shells was a top-notch idea should have been drowned at birth for the good of mankind. Especially considering that all the things that matter in the world of personal hygiene – a shower with a flow rate higher than an eggcup per hour, and a bathtub not coated with Teflon – had been glaringly overlooked. Even the grip mat didn't help, because it didn't grip! Where are Trading Standards when you need them most? Still, at least drying off was not a problem, because Phil subscribes to the school of thought that says fabric conditioners and towels don't mix. Something about nice, soft, fluffy towels not absorbing water very well. What little water there was on my skin had evaporated by the time I'd managed to peel the towel open.      Having involuntarily exfoliated using the sandpaper-like material, I somehow focussed on the grime-streaked mirror well enough to shave without cutting something important such as sideburns, or an artery. I looked dreadful. Normally I stand five-feet eleven and a bit tall, but that hurt too much and I had to slouch to reduce the headache. My eyes are a light blue colour, but I couldn't see that for the redness in and around them. The shower had messed up my hair so that, rather than a spiky blonde cut, I now had a darker coloured comb over. And finally my face, which could usually be described as well-defined but not quite chiselled, was so haggard that I looked as if someone had injected me with muscle relaxant. I did my best after the shave to rectify a lot of these using eyedrops, hair gel and moisturiser. Then, toothbrush still in my mouth, I went in search of clean uniform.      The biggest problem proved to be pressing my shirt. The iron was part of the flat's inventory as well, and, had it been a couple of years older, would probably have been heated in an open fire. Several minutes worth of cursing and snarling and I had a shirt that appeared to have been made from material normally used for shell suits. In the end I gave up, relying on body heat to finish the job by the time I got to Heathrow. Suitably attired in light grey trousers, with an orange and blue striped tie and navy blue single-breasted jacket, I threw a few essentials into a holdall, dug out an old Casio, checked I had my passport, ID and cash, and headed for the front door.      Phil heard me fiddling with the latch, launching a parting shot that hit me right between the ears.      ''That's right. Get tae, ya bastard. And if I were you, I wouldnae be drinking out of any unsealed containers in the fridge when you get back.''      Hard to believe we're friends, isn't it? Tiptoeing past the ground floor flat inhabited by Sheila, a pestilent harpy who lists chain smoking and comfort eating amongst her hobbies, I stepped out into the freezing night. My car was parked on the other side of the small rectangular courtyard, each flat being allocated a numbered space. Luckily, Phil's job as office manager for a City-based firm meant he went to work, along with thousands of others, on the tremendously inefficient and overcrowded rail system. Ironically, the cash blown on his rail pass, entitling him to be delayed, stranded, abused by psychos, and generally pissed about, meant he couldn't afford to run his own little petrol-driven sanctuary. This cut the arguing over who got the parking space down to easily manageable levels.      I carefully descended the five steps from the security door, being ever vigilant for little frozen pools of piss which the Sheila's furry rat, or Yorkshire terrier as she calls it, would leave nine or ten times a day. The small bladder size suggested by the dog's tiny body, and the number of required toilet stops, were seriously contradicted by the twelve-inch diameter of these puddles. One of the ongoing arguments concerned this pissmonster – the little sod saw venturing past the steps as unnecessary risk (nothing to do with several vehicle-assisted assassination attempts on my part, I hope) and always did his business there. In freezing conditions, he could strategically place these ponds to strike fear into the neighbour's hearts, as every step held the risk of a painful fall. Invisible, treacherous, and deadly – the Vietcong would have been proud.      As it happened, an earlier dusting of snow had settled on the tiles, and the contrast between yellow and white flagged each zone of death quite clearly. Vowing for the hundredth time to call the council – apart from that time I lost my keys at 4am, I didn't go pissing on her doorstep – I set off in the direction of my car. As I came closer, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the promised frost hadn't yet descended onto my windscreen. Thank Christ! This saved me either a fifteen-minute wait for the heater, or a life-threatening drive through Staines with my head out of the window.      Throwing the holdall into the boot of my Mazda MX5, I quickly got the engine running and fishtailed out of the courtyard-cum-ice rink, narrowly avoiding three cars and a decorative yew before the wheels ended up on the gritted road, gripped, and launched the car in almost the right direction. Admittedly, having residents' parking when living this close to the town centre was great, especially on shopping days when all the tightwads in the world are searching for a free space, but the down side was the council's flat refusal to lay down grit on this little square because it was 'private property'. Didn't stop the bastards adding an extra two hundred notes a year onto the council tax for having this luxury, but that's democracy for you.      I sped around the back of the Elmsleigh shopping centre, taking full advantage of the total lack of traffic, whilst at the same time keeping a watchful eye out for the local constabulary. No doubt they were just as pissed off as I was for having to work on New Year, and would be hunting motorists down like dogs to spread the Xmas cheer. The last thing I needed was to be pulled over by Plod at this point because, although it had been over fourteen hours since my last alcohol intake, I had no doubt that the preceding twelve hours of boozing would have the breathalyser checking into rehab the next day.      For your average person the worst-case would be an appearance in court, followed by a small ban and a fine. Unfortunately, wearing a uniform even slightly connected to aviation guarantees a dragging through the press, followed by summary dismissal for gross misconduct.      With the ban and the fine.      It's not that I'm advocating turning up to work pissed in any way, but at this juncture I would just like to point out that, since the means of testing corpses (or tiny bits of scorched flesh, depending on how hard the ground came up to meet the aeroplane) for alcohol has been available, not a single commercial aviation accident has had beer as a contributing factor. Compare this to the high percentage of accidents caused by people being total fuckwits, and you get my point. My main gripe, I guess, is that a surgeon pulled over on his way to work, unless he has a severe case of small man syndrome and goes everywhere in his scrubs, will usually be able to cover up the fact that he was about to perform a triple bypass on the back of two bottles of Chardonnay.      For us though, it's pretty apparent where we're going, and it seems to me that every copper in the country has the hotline number for The Sun. Still, I must admit the fare-paying public have enough to worry about as it is, without the crew being unsure what planet they're on, let alone where they're meant to be going.      My journey ended up being a little longer than normal because I got stuck behind an airport bus as it coughed and spluttered its way around Heathrow's perimeter track, trailing a cloud of smoke that was in danger of causing multiple pile-ups in its wake. Not that any of the following drivers really noticed; they were all watching aeroplanes as they shot off into the low cloud that was hanging over London. It always makes me chuckle that the authorities thought they had countered this dangerous trait by nailing a metre-wide strip of corrugated iron halfway up the fence, thereby obstructing one's view of the hundreds of take offs and landings that happened every day of the year.      Great! Nice one! But hang on a sec.      As everyone with a brain larger than a Spice Girl knows, an aeroplane that doesn't go up or down is called a bus. True, it would be a silly looking bus, and one that would pose a huge threat to pedestrians and streetlights, but if it's going by road, it's a bus.      What the authorities actually succeeded in doing was to replace the 'ooooh, look at that lovely aeropla… oh shit, I've veered off the road' type accident with the much worse 'what the hell was that? – Aaahhhghh!!' type accident, as 350 tons of screaming aluminium and diesel emerges from behind the barrier, one hundred metres from the previously safe cocoon provided by Ford and Chris Rea. This usually causes the poor bastard to swerve into the path of an oncoming Hertz shuttle bus, with predictable results.      Myself, I am more at risk from an accident caused by screaming abuse at the anoraked wankers on the other side of the road, who voluntarily give up their days off to drive to Heathrow and watch the planes for hours on end. They're not unique to this airport, with 'sadgit' being an international language these days (although it doesn't translate too well into Greek), but they appear to be much hardier here.      Even on New Year's night, when all those who hadn't actually died from excess were recovering from excess, there were several of them there. Why, for Christ's sake? It was freezing. Oh yes, and it was dark! All you can see at night is a black hole surrounded by lights powerful enough to leave you needing a retina replacement, should you look directly at them. Where's the fun in that? Just stay at home with your family, if you have one, and nip off to the bathroom on a regular basis with a copy of Flight International.      I wasn't really up to screaming at them out of the window this time around – it was bloody freezing for a start – so I kept alive my campaign to have spotters wiped off the planet simply by aiming a surreptitious five-finger shuffle at them as I drove by; another internationally recognised signal with little opportunity for misinterpretation.      Five minutes later, I began my search for a space in the staff carpark. CHAPTER 2 The Global Air Operations building has a lot in common with several other airport structures, in that it looks so old that one of the reasons it's still standing must be because the Germans missed it during the war. Only the bolted-on plastic awnings above each retrofitted entrance (a feeble attempt at keeping the elements off exiled smokers) hint at post-thirties technology. Already a dilapidated red brick construction with a flat roof and peeling, wooden-framed, windows, its appearance has been sullied further by the addition of gunmetal grey prefabricated units at various points around the site – strategically placed in an attempt to increase the available workspace without having to deal with little annoyances such as asbestos regulations. Trust me, one wrongly placed sledgehammer blow combined with an unfavourable wind, and Hounslow would become uninhabitable.      Obviously, 'more so than usual' was inferred.      I trudged towards the newly fitted automatic doors, warily eyeing the overhanging plastic canopies. With the continuous vibrations of jet engines, and the fact that they are late additions to crumbling brickwork, these covers are permanently on the cusp of becoming carpets. Fortunately, at the last minute, it was decided not to use glass panels because it was thought that it could get messy.      Blood is a total bitch to get out of concrete.      Eventually, I managed to squeeze my way past crew who were checking in their suitcase and reach the security point. This doesn't lead airside, but I think that sometime in the past the company had decided that there were enough thieves and charlatans already in their employ, without giving the outside world unrestricted access as well. A terminally bored guard swiped my ID card and let me through without looking at me, or the picture on the card. It seemed that we were on the honour system tonight, and to be honest, I couldn't blame him. After all, when you're being paid less than a McDonald's lackey, why should you give a toss. How he got through a shift without some form of self-harm, I have no idea. I would need someone to take my belt and shoelaces off me.      Stepping inside the small reception area of the ops building, the first thing that hits the uninitiated visitor is the blinding glare. Obviously, apart from the asbestos risk, the reason that the exterior is so neglected is because all the money has been spent on chrome and halogen lights. The interior design of this place is to chrome what our kitchen is to brown, and the builders who got the refurbishment contract must have had a nightmare trying to justify what they were doing.      'Pheewww! The edges on that reception desk are looking a bit sharp, love. Better slap some chrome trim on it.' And,      'So you want subtle, recessed overhead lighting, do you? Are you sure, pal, 'cos I got some smashing chrome halogen uplighters in the van. They'll set off those chrome plant pots and picture frames something lovely.'      And so on.      The layout inside is precisely why there is so much chrome and harsh lighting. Look at the plans and the phrase 'rabbit warren' comes to mind. Four levels, connected by central escalators that were shoehorned into the building some years ago, are partitioned by drywall into lots of little rooms and narrow corridors. The floors are so thin that dropping a pencil on the roof can be heard in the basement, the carpeting is so old that it is practically hairy lino now, and the least said about the furnishings or the prison-green walls the better. So, as is written in the corporate interior design manual, rather than spend a fortune on new gear, the company simply put bright lights and a bit of shiny metal in. Now, people can't really notice the threadbare carpets because they're squinting all the time. Naturally, this wouldn't have been the case at all if the planned move of senior managers to the top floor had gone ahead.      Not on the top floor it wouldn't, at least.      However, when it became clear that the demolition teams would be knocking on the front door as soon as Heathrow gets its third runway, it was decided that it would have been a pointless exercise to move all these bigwigs from their comfy offices in Knightsbridge, only to send them all back again. This was all for the best, of course, as it's impossible not to be distracted every time an aircraft takes off; something that would cut their effective working day in half, and that's before taking into account time lost from playing solitaire or emailing porn to colleagues.      Suddenly, I was awakened from my reverie by the soft, husky, voice of an angel.      ''Are you going up, mate,'' she said, obviously from the Surrey chapter of heaven, ''or are you going to be waiting there all night?''      I had apparently been standing there like a lemon whilst I got accustomed to the glare, inadvertently blocking the escalator, and hadn't been aware of a presence behind me. Still partially blinded, I took a tentative step forward, and stumbled as the steps threw me off balance. Having regained my footing, though not my self-esteem, I turned to apologise.      ''Sorry, but…'' I almost choked, the rest of the sentence cut off by the same condition that afflicts most adolescent males when faced with a beautiful woman. In this case, my brain had registered the purring lilt, and the part of it that thinks that life is cruel had already put the owner into the 'nice personality, nice hair' category; surely no one with a voice like that could possibly be attractive as well. So, as I turned round I had to mentally reboot, because the girl standing behind me was absolutely stunning. There was a brief period when my brain claimed victory on the grounds that she was a midget, but my eyes managed to have that decision overturned when the replay clearly showed her four steps below me on the escalator.      ''Sorry, but…what?'' she asked, with a wry grin which betrayed the fact that this wasn't the first time she had rendered a member of the opposite sex speechless. She was foxy and she knew it. Help! The grin just added to her appeal, and her question was pure torture as it required my mind to set aside processing time for conversation when it was primarily wanting to stare. Luckily, the first recon units were already reporting back by now, and it was all good news. As well as the cheeky smirk, she had a longish, lightly tanned face and, set above a non-descript nose (although the sheer mediocrity made it attractive in it's own way), were the brownest, most beautiful, almond shaped eyes I had ever seen.      Oh, and she had chocolate brown hair. Some sort of bob, I think.      Sorry, but with a face like that, baldness wouldn't have incurred too many penalty points. Girls seem to spend an eternity, and a fortune, making sure their hair is just right, for it to be noticed solely by other girls and, of course, gay men. A woman puts three strands in a slightly different place and a girlfriend she hasn't seen in two years will pick up on it in microseconds. However, she can do anything she likes to it, apart from colour it ginger, and it will require several hints of the genre, 'you'll never guess who I saw when I was in the hairdressers…' to illicit any form of reaction from her man, and even then it will be the classic, 'Oh yeah, you've done something to your hair, er, it's nice.'      Eventually, having acceded to all the demands tabled by my saliva glands in the interest of a speedy return to work, I managed to find some semblance of a voice. Unfortunately, the union representing the sparkling repartee glands had rejected the current offer, and I was left spouting, for want of a better word, shit.      ''Eh…that is I…eh…blinded by the lights…eh…sorry.''      Pure class.      I quickly came to the conclusion that a self-effacing approach was probably my only way out now. Not the first time I'd gone campaigning for the pity vote if truth were told.      ''Look, I'm really sorry,'' I said. ''I don't usually sound like a total dick, honest. It was quite a late one last night, and I'm still recovering.''      Nice one, I thought; going for sympathy on the one hand, whilst on the other letting it be known that here is one serious party dude. But did the jury buy it?      ''S'all right, mate,'' she answered, nodding. ''I had one too many Bacardi Breezers myself.''      We find the defendant not guilty your honour.      Which made it all the more of a tragedy when I managed to make a complete arse of myself as, quite maliciously, the escalator reached its zenith with me still looking backwards. The transition from moving to not wasn't exactly seamless, and I was sent sprawling across the floor, tripping a couple of times over my holdall, and coming unceremoniously to a rest against one of the ubiquitous recycling bins. Normally, this sort of tumble is laughed off with the phrase, 'Ah well, at least only your pride was hurt'; I, however, managed to append a twisted ankle and a bang on the head to this – so much for recycling being good for humanity.      I was left sitting on my arse, having achieved very low scores from the technical judges, and there is absolutely no way to retrieve a situation like this. It cannot be made light of, swept under the rug, or even subjected to any number of revisionist historians. The deed is done. You may as well try to unscrew your friend's wife, after he has walked in on both of you at it like rabbits.      Usually, the best response is a resounding 'bollocks!' followed by hauling yourself upright, a quick brushing down, and finally walking away with the sincere hope that only a handful of people witnessed your humiliation.      Unfortunately, the hitherto object of my mildly unhealthy lusting had chosen this point to demonstrate that, as well as listing delight in the misfortunes of others amongst her hobbies, she could take one of those mechanical seaside policemen in a laughter contest any day of the week. What had started as a spontaneous, hybrid scream-snort as the initial surprise bypassed her compassion receptors, had evolved into a full-blown hysterical fit, no doubt attracting the attention of pretty much everyone in the building. Tears were flowing down her perfectly formed cheeks, and her arms were wrapped around her midriff as if the loss of certain vital organs was a distinct possibility. And the sound. Christ, the sound of her laughter. The huskiness of her voice translated into mirth with gusto, although you were never in any doubt that you were listening to the female of the species. Added to this was a total lack of inhibition, probably (hopefully) unintentional, so that volume was dictated by the comedy value of the event, not by any consideration for her surroundings. The sort of person who would be unable to stay silent in church having witnessed the vicar surreptitiously trying to scratch himself. The result was remarkable, giving the impression that all before who have used the phrase ''belly laugh'' were only kidding; simply marking time until she came along, and swept aside all pretenders to the throne.      And it was so sexy.      There I was, this afternoon's headache returning with punitive interest, and the material of my sock already trying to keep up with my rapidly distending right ankle, and all I was aware of was an unwelcome (due to the exposed nature of my predicament) stirring in my loins, and a weighty pain of longing in my chest, although that may have been down to the previous evening's thirty or forty Silk Cut.      These were worrying developments. Either this girl was setting off primordial responses in my nervous system, or else I was looking at the onset of a stroke. And not the good kind.      In either case, the future held plenty of dribbling and the inability to speak properly, so I decided that the present was more important, and I should focus mainly on getting up off the floor.      All laughed out now, this cruel beauty suddenly showed a little bit of remorse and enquired if I was OK. Probably it was a form of shame similar to that felt by sex addicts once they've shot their load, in that it's always there, but goes unheeded at the back when the infinitely stronger base instinct rears its head. Much like a choirboy trying to sing over a Metallica concert. However, even a mere inkling of remorse was better than none at all, so I bit my tongue and replied, in my opinion anyway, quite positively.      ''Fine, fine,'' I said through clenched teeth. ''Nothing that suicide can't fix, anyway.''      ''Don't be soft, mate,'' she answered, the cheeky grin reappearing. ''I make a bigger idiot of myself than that on a daily basis. Come on.''      I took the offered hand, noting straight away the contrast between the firm grip and the silky feel of her skin. Trying to favour my undamaged ankle, and bracing my free hand against the nearest wall, I was finally able to stand almost upright again. I placed some weight on my right foot, and performed the standard ankle injury procedure – rapid intake of breath, instant buckling of knee, optional effeminate drop of shoulder, exhale with almost inaudible 'Ahhh', and repeat. Being wise beyond my thirty-one years, however, I decided not to make too big a deal of it all. There is a fine line, mere atoms in width, between appearing to suffer with dignity, and looking like a big girl's blouse.      ''Thanks,'' I said, my eyes straying downwards in search of a name badge. Fortunately, Uniform Standards had decreed that this should be pinned tantalisingly atop the left breast, giving men, as the cartoon guy from the Simpson's would say, the best excuse ever. Unfortunately, the temperature outside was dictating the fashion that night. My gaze was thwarted by a thick trench coat, forcing me to quickly look up because now I was clearly staring at her tits. Our eyes met and, once again, I got the impression that she could read my every thought – even the ones I hadn't even had yet. I suddenly knew how an accused murderer must feel, looking into the eyes of an interviewing officer who has just been handed a large brown envelope bearing the letters 'D.N.A.'      ''Don't mention it. You late, then?'' she enquired, in response to me stealing a glance at my watch. I wasn't as it happened – I still had about thirty minutes – but this was a nervous reaction, caused by being in the presence of far superior genes.      ''Not really, no,'' I said, stealing yet another glance at the watch to actually read the time, ''I've still got about half an hour.''      Ah well, I thought, it's the things you don't do you regret the most, so here goes.      ''Listen,'' I said, ''before I spread myself all over the carpet tiles here, I was off to get a coffee. I don't suppose I can get you one too, you know, to…ahh…say thanks for helping me up?''      ''You wouldn't have fallen if it weren't for me,'' was the reply as, true to form, female logic ran the risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I'm sure that if it had been a woman accepting the Japanese surrender in '45, she would have hesitated just before signing the treaty, and mused, 'well, we did drop a couple of nasty bombs on you, didn't we? I suppose we wouldn't miss Hawaii that much.'      ''That may be true,'' I countered, desperate to spend a little more time in her presence, ''but at least you helped eventually. You didn't just laugh and move on like this lot.''      I swept my arm up and down the corridor, indicating the rest of the onlookers who, like wildebeest after the lions have 'goodbyed' the weakest link, were now moving on as if nothing had happened.      ''I might as well have fallen in the Underground,'' I said.      ''OK,'' she said, ''when you put it like that, I guess you do owe me. Let's go.''      The coffee shop, affectionately known as the 'Kennels' because of the number of old dogs that frequent the place, is on the second floor, tucked away in a corner, and is basically a seating area filled with proto-Ikea furniture in front of a counter which lingers under the almost sacrilegious misnomer of 'bar'. Behind this is an all-in-one coffee machine, of the type that tries to con people into believing the product is fresh simply by making a whirring noise every time a button is pressed.      I untangled the holdall from my feet, and we stepped onto the next escalator, setting off in that direction. It struck me that I still didn't know her name. There was no chance to rectify this, however, because she got a question in first.      ''So…Michael,'' she said, able to see my name badge, ''where are you off to?''      ''Mike, please,'' I said. ''It's a Boston nightstop. Yourself?'' I asked, all the time thinking, 'Please be Boston, please be Boston!'      ''New York.''      Bugger.      As we reached the bar and stood in line for a cup of the bitter milky liquid they try to pass off as coffee here, she turned to face me.      ''Hate the place really,'' she pouted, ''but it's only for twenty-four hours. Oh sorry, I'm Anna by the way. Nice to meet you.''      There followed an uncomfortable moment when I offered my hand to shake, just as Anna offered her cheek in the continental manner. Damn those French. Don't get me wrong, I love all things French, (apart from the French themselves, of course) but since our countries have stopped shooting things any worse than the odd barbed comment at each other, the gradual integration of the two cultures has turned the simple act of greeting the opposite sex into a nightmare. Previously, on meeting a lady, the only pitfall was remembering not to break all the bones in her hand. These days, there are far too many options – do you shake hands or kiss? Or shake hands and kiss? And if you kiss, do you kiss one cheek, or both. Or both cheeks twice? It's a dilemma, right enough, and that's without the pretentious gits who air kiss, causing you to miss completely.      Anna, however, pulled off a great save by quickly taking my hand, and, at the same time, tilting her head so that our cheeks brushed rather than collided. Even that briefest of contacts sent nerve messages fizzing straight downward again, so I was more than glad when the guy serving asked for our order and I could lean against the bar. This was worse than the swimming baths during puberty – at least the water's distortion offered some camouflage. Two distinct thoughts were flitting back and forth through my head at this point. The first was that this girl was definitely affecting me, and the second, even more obvious now in the harsh light of the first, was that I desperately needed a shag.      ''Two coffees please, white.''      ''Would you like anything to eat with that?'' asked the server, indicating some pastries and sandwiches that had to be at least three days old by now.      ''No thanks, mate,'' I answered, managing somehow to refrain from using my initial response because 'you're joking, right?' would have caused offence. Those sandwiches constituted a health risk, and no amount of strategic Best Before date Tippexing could have hidden the fact that they were only one more cell division away from walking out on their own.      Anna and I picked up our respective mugs and found an empty table near a window, overlooking a car park. She removed her raincoat before sitting, and once again I saw that nature wasn't being at all cruel with this one. The uniform coats came in two sizes – medium and large – and rarely, if ever, gave any hint as to the figure lurking underneath. Many a time had an attractive looking girl removed her raincoat to reveal a body so out of proportion, it looked as if an African headshrinker had been at work. Anna's figure did not disappoint in the slightest. She was only four or five inches shorter than me, so that put her height around 5'6, and she was perfectly in proportion, with slender legs disappearing up into the knee-length skirt, a trim waist, and two more fabulous reasons for me to thank Uniform Standards for the placement of the name badge.      While she poured an inordinate amount of sugar into her coffee, I had already swigged half of mine, craving the caffeine fix even though I knew it was going to make me feel worse within minutes. Eventually I found the willpower to put the mug back down, my shaky arm grateful for the reduced weight.      ''Any more sugar,'' I said, ''and your spoon will be standing on its own.''      Anna looked down, as if noticing her cup for the first time, and put the sugar dispenser back on the table.      ''Yeah, sorry. When I've got a hangover, it's either a sweet coffee or several bars of chocolate. I've seen too many Slimfast adverts to go with option two.''      I had already opened my mouth to point out the inconsistency in this statement when I realised she was joking, and by then it was already too late.      ''Ha, got you! Jesus, you must be knackered, falling for that one.''      ''Well, true,'' I replied, performing a mock yawn for show, ''but I was actually going to say that just because you didn't get a call-back for the adverts, it's no reason to go dissing their product.''      As Anna would have struggled to stop a size ten from falling off her, I felt I was in fairly safe territory, despite us having just met. With women and weight though, you can never tell, and so a few nerve-racking seconds had gone by before she finally chuckled and gently shook her head.      ''Bastard!''      ''I thank you,'' I said, taking a half-bow. ''So where'd you come in from tonight?''      ''Richmond.''      ''Nice,'' I said, wondering if she was like my pal in Chiswick who put up with not much more than a bedsit and drove a rust bucket, just to have W4 on his credit card bills. ''Is that where you notched up all those Bacardi Breezers last night?''      ''Yeah mate, d'you know Harry's?''      I nodded. Harry's is a bar on the Thames waterfront in Richmond. It has two levels: downstairs is the main bar and upstairs is the 'quiet' room where the music volume is kept lower so people can chat. That is on a normal night – on New Year's Eve, the party fills all available space like jelly into a mould. The management, in common with every other bar in the world, takes full advantage and charges a mint for tickets. This has the strange effect of making tickets even more desirable – if they cost that much it must be a fucking great party, right? The reality is being unable to move, having drink spilled over your clothes, not getting served through the six-deep crowd at the bar, having to endure Auld Lang Syne whilst holding hands with complete strangers, and finally waiting two hours to be charged triple rate by an illegal mini-cab. This was why Phil and I elected to stay local – the cost was high enough without shelling out for cab fare plus the inevitable vomit surcharge. Despite all of this, the demand for tickets is huge every year, and I was slightly surprised that Anna had managed to acquire a couple. When I pointed this out, she just smiled and muttered something about friends in high places.      ''So,'' I asked, ''was it all it was hyped up to be?''      ''Jesus, no! The place was full of rugger buggers and if Guinness stains, then my dress is ruined. If it weren't for my mates and I making our own entertainment, we'd have been offski before ten.''      I became aware that I had just missed something important in Anna's last sentence, but couldn't think what it was. A snippet of information had slipped through without any elaboration being offered, so I replayed the words one by one in my head. Eventually, I got it.      ''Dare I ask how you made your own entertainment?''      ''Well,'' she answered, beginning to laugh again. ''We had this competition, right? What we had to do was find a bloke, get him to buy us a drink, and then get back to our group less than a minute after the drink was in our hands, without him.''      ''Was there any subtlety involved,'' I asked, ''or could you just say 'cheers for the drink pal, now do one,' and then walk away?''      ''Depends who it was,'' was the reply, ''I was using the classic 'gotta go to the loo' excuse, but my mate Melanie was a bit more forward.''      Anna paused for a moment, still chuckling to herself, and I couldn't wait any longer.      ''How? C'mon, tell me''      ''Melanie is quite a big girl, right?'' she said, arching her eyebrows conspiratorially. ''She goes to the bar, picks this dorky looking guy, and says to him, 'Here mate, you can stick your face in me chest if you buy us a drink and then bugger off'. Of course, he's up for it 'cos it's the only thing he's going to be getting all night. So there's her drinking watermelon Breezer, looking at her watch, with his head stuck between her melons!''      ''Is she crew, this Melanie?'' I asked.      ''Yeah.''      ''I must try and get a flight with her then. I've been using alcohol as currency for sexual favours for so long now, she sounds right up my street. Tell her I can go as high as seven Bacardis. Eight, tops.''      Anna suddenly stopped laughing, and looked at me with an expression that was a mixture of shock and hurt. I was instantly regretting my last statement, knowing for sure this time that I had really overstepped the mark.      ''I can't believe you,'' she said. ''That's one of my best friends you're talking about. You've not even met her yet, and she's going to want to kill you already.''      She paused for a while, looking out over the car park to the terminal buildings beyond.      ''And anyway, I know for a fact she won't go down on anyone for less than ten Bacardis, and a bag of nuts.''      The release of tension was almost palpable – I had to breathe a huge sigh of relief before the laughter came. She'd stitched me up like a kipper again, and she didn't even seem to be trying. Not that I minded, because I was thoroughly enjoying being in her company. Anna was perfect: stunning, interesting and funny. To be honest, I was waiting for a revelation about her formative years before the sex change, just to balance out the books. Also, I realised that my trademark paranoia that usually set in whilst talking to the opposite sex had totally failed to manifest itself. Of course, the tiny speck of my conscious mind that noticed the paranoia's absence also went a long way towards reinstating it, by suggesting that a good reason for me feeling comfortable was because Anna was so far out of my league, there was absolutely zero chance of a relationship. Not that I consider myself to be hideously ugly (my 'handsometer' rating hovers around the above-average mark – not grotesque, but Brad Pitt can sleep safe), it's just that humans tend to go for those of similar beauty when choosing a mate and, basically, Anna would not be out of place on the arm of said actor. Sometimes you do see a beautiful woman with a man who is fat, bald, ugly, or a combination of all three. However, dig a little deeper and you'll find that either he has a large bank account, or that she has the personality of a major road accident. Again, there are a few exceptions, but on the whole the rule holds true.      I took another look at my watch. Shit! Only five minutes before my briefing started.      ''Oh bugger,'' I said, downing the rest of my coffee and getting to my feet, remembering too late about my ankle. ''Ahhhh've got to go. Sorry.''      ''Oh right, OK,'' Anna said, and I thought I saw a flicker of disappointment cross her face. At least I hoped it was disappointment: with all that sweet coffee, it could well have been wind. Along with my belongings, I decided I should gather my confidence as well. After all, Anna may have been Premiership class, but occasionally the Conference sides get a shot at them in the Cup, right?      ''Listen,'' I started falteringly (especially after insecurity carried on in my head with '…to the voice of reason, muppet. You've no chance!'), but I forced myself on regardless, ''…er, I only live in Staines. Er, maybe we could go out together for a drink or something. You know, as friends. Or as a group, or something?''      Shut up, shut up, shut up!      This time I heeded the inner voice, and stood there waiting for a reply, knowing the answer already, and feeling my face getting redder by the second. Now that the proposition was out in the open, it sounded absolutely ridiculous – what on earth was I thinking?! Why did I not listen to myself? As if she would go out with a scrote like me. I should have kept shtum, and I'd have been walking away right now with dignity intact, with her maybe thinking I was quite a nice guy. But no, I had delusions of a third round giant killing, when everyone knew the only possible outcome was a 7-0 rout.      ''Sorry, mate,'' she said, at least having the good grace to appear sympathetic, ''I don't think my boyfriend would be too impressed with that. Tell you what though. You leave me your roster and we can meet here again for a chat next time we've got similar trips. OK?''      OK? Of course it was OK! The result was the same – knocked out of the Cup – but it was no longer a rout. The plucky non-leaguers had gone down fighting, losing to a last minute goal, their supporters disappointed but proud nonetheless.      We exchanged mobile numbers, and I left Anna there, almost skipping away, despite my knackered ankle, down towards the briefing room.      The happiness was to last about thirty seconds.
Archived comments for Bad Altitude - Chapters 1/2
Andrea on 10-03-2006
Bad Altitude
Hi Jack, welcome to UKA 🙂

Just a thought - I think you'd get more reads if the layout was a bit clearer. Also, it's a shame it's been cut short, but the system can only take around 10,000 words after which it heaves a huge sigh and gives up the ghost.

It's far better to submit these things in chunks of around 2000-2500 words if poss. Makes it easier to read, holds people's attention better and they look forward to reading the next installment (hopefully).

Not a crit, just trying to be helpful and get you more reads...

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