I wasn’t always scared of flying. At university I flew all the time because my boyfriend (now husband) inconveniently lived back home in Belfast. Even when I lived in Paris for a year, I visited him at least once a month. The only weeping I did then was on my way back to the 11ème arrondissement, listening to Avril Lavigne with eyeliner streaming down my face while being ignored by Parisians. The injustice of being ripped away from the love of my life in the name of education was just too much. But back then I never thought I’d crash and die every time I stepped onto a plane.
Fast forward a few years, two children, and BAM I am the single most annoying person to sit beside on a flight.
On my latest journey, a forty-minute trip from Belfast to Liverpool, my husband paid extra to get us seats together because we were on a budget airline. I’d had a gin and ginger ale at the airport. All was grand. We got on the plane. Still grand. Then the flight attendants started their routine. Because that’s all you need. A reminder to brace yourself just in case ‘something’ happens. And by something they obviously don’t mean running out of sandwiches, they mean a catastrophic mechanical failure that results in death.
My heart quickened. Diazepam was no match for my intrusive thoughts. It was imperative that I sat in the middle seat. Because 1) I obviously couldn’t look out the window and 2) the aisle gave far too good a view of the flight attendants. Facial expressions, speaking on telephones, warning signs. I was on to them.
My husband was sitting by the window, trying to read his book, trying to avoid my elbow every time the plane went over a non-existent bump on the tarmac. The man on my other side was listening to music. Like a creep I stared at his face. He looked so calm, he clearly didn’t think anything was going to go wrong. Maybe he was just stupid. Or maybe this flight would be different, maybe I’d been miraculously cured since my last flight. I was feeling smug, like somehow I’d been my own personal self help book. Then we took off. And my brain said ‘ fuck no.’ There was no air left on the plane. How could there be when there were so many people stealing my air?
The man beside me looked round then quickly back. I dug my fingers into my husband’s arm.
‘You’re hurting me.’
‘Sorry.’ I didn’t release my grip. I closed my eyes. I opened my eyes. If I closed my eyes I wouldn’t see the signs. The first signs of something going wrong.
I’d like to point out that I know next to nothing about planes. That if, in fact the something did go wrong, my first indication would probably be plummeting through the clouds. But did that matter? No. Then there were the tears. The tears and the fast breathing that made me dizzy. ‘Ping’ seatbelt signs were off and the man beside me got up and left, rambling about wanting to sit in the row behind, in the empty seat beside the window. I didn’t blame him.
‘What would help? Do you want me to tell you about my book?’ My husband looked at me. Another version of me. A version that screamed ‘please God help’ through my eyes.
‘It’s a Western.’
‘How can you even read when we’re all going to die?’ At this point I looked around to see other people reading. Some were even sleeping. Psychopaths.
My hands were shaking. The sensible part of my brain was telling me that I was being an idiot. Like that time I was convinced my husband was lying dead on the streets of Cork at 4am. I even went to the trouble of phoning all the local hospitals. It turned out he was just pissed in some bar. Of course he was. The sensible part of my brain can see what the ridiculous part of my brain is thinking but all it does to help is throw the odd non-committal and very patronising, ‘sure you’ll be grand, don’t you worry your little head,’ at me, which is soon obliterated by the ‘oh shit, you’re going to die and you’re never going to see your children again. WHY DID YOU GET ON THIS PLANE YOU ABSOLUTE MORON?’
My husband ordered drinks. Two gins and one tonic. For me. I didn’t care that it was an afternoon flight. I didn’t care that it tasted like paint stripper.
‘Drink.’ He said. I drank.
‘Drink faster.’ I drank faster.
‘Do accents for me.’ I said.
‘What? No. Why?’
‘You’re rubbish at accents. It’s really funny. Might distract me’. The gin started to work and I could feel myself relax.
‘I’m not rubbish at accents.’
He would not prove it. (He is terrible at accents.)
‘Cabin crew please take your seats for landing.’ And it was back. Even though the gin had taken the edge off, even though I didn’t care quite so much that I was going to die. I was definitely still going to die.
The tears came back and my husband started talking about his book again. The Western.
I closed my eyes, squeezing them shut until they hurt, trying to force out thoughts of exploding planes, severed bodies and the Western. Then we landed. And I was drunk. Safe on the ground … for two days.
Jenny Ireland lives just outside Belfast with her husband, two children and kitten Batman. Following completion of the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children course she has almost finished editing her middle grade novel Salt Blood, a contemporary fantasy with a dark twist on selkie folklore. She spends her time procrastinating on twitter @IdreamofNarnia, staring at the sea from her window and wrestling her feral children.