I’m suspended 15,000 feet above the Earth, bang in the middle of my worst nightmare. I’m wearing a hideous black outfit topped off with a pointy leather hat, and I’m clutching a stick. From behind, a stranger’s legs are clamped around me. Up ahead, howling goblins are flinging themselves into a gaping portal. The gatekeeper, an ogre with one giant eye, beckons me to follow the demented creatures into the void. A wrinkled hag lures me to my destruction, chanting an ancient rune. I scream at the top of my voice, ‘Sisters, end this accursed journey, in the name of all-powerful Hecate!’
Those may not be my exact words, but it is one Hell of a Hallowe’en party.
I hear you say, ‘Sounds like you’ve had a better weekend than I have. But aren’t you a bit long in the tooth to join the Mile High Club?’ Dear readers, listen and learn.
It all started when Bub’s neighbour visited the Community Centre. Everyone gathered round to greet her, because Elsie is a living legend in our neck of the woods. I could hardly believe my ears when she told us that, since we last saw her, she’d tried drag-racing, parachute-gliding and abseiling. Everyone was impressed except Myrtle, who rolled her eyes in her usual annoying manner. ‘You should take things easy at your age. Why do you want to put yourself in danger?’
Her question seemed to surprise Elsie. ‘I do it because I’ve lived a long life, and I’ve worked my guts out. Now, I’m having adventures, to remind myself that I’m still alive. This is my time! I’ll be ninety-two next week and, for a birthday present, my grand-kids have paid for me to go sky-diving again. Who’s up for jumping out of a plane with me?’ Quick as a flash, her spellbound admirers vanished into thin air.
Erica, the Centre manager, was listening in. ‘My word, aren’t you the lucky one, to be offered such an imaginative gift? I only ever get hand cream and bedsocks from my family. Bub, didn’t you once tell me that you’ve always wanted to go sky-diving? Thanks to your hard work, we made a big profit on the jumble sale last week, so I can pay for two people to jump along with Elsie. You simply must be one of them!’
If Erica didn’t take life so seriously, I’d have suspected she was being mischievous. The first time I met Bub, she made scathing remarks about the low-key activities Erica had planned for the Over-Fifties Club, and said she’d rather go sky-diving. I thought Erica had forgotten all about it, but now she seemed to be taking the opportunity to call Bub’s bluff. I was trying to conceal a giggle when a managerial arm settled around my shoulders. With Erica, physical contact is always a sign of trouble.
‘Lovey, you’re going with Elsie and Bub. I won’t take “no” for an answer. If anyone deserves a treat, it’s you. When your business takes off and you have to give up volunteering, I don’t know what I’ll do without you.’
Elsie grinned and clapped her hands. ‘That’s wonderful news! Well done, Erica! You’re going to love it, girls. I’ve been twice, and the first time is the best. I couldn’t get up there quick enough.’
Bub and I have become good friends, but there’s a strong element of competition between us. Although we were both ‘bricking it’ at the idea of falling from the sky, there was no way either of us was going to let it show. Bub was about as keen to lose her credibility as a strong, fearless matriarch as I was to get on the wrong side of Erica. Our beloved leader has a free hand with expenses, not to mention allowing me to store my gardening equipment in the community centre shed. What’s more, neither of us wanted to be shown up by a cheeky nonagenarian. Judging by the expression on Bub’s face, she was asking herself which of us would crack first, and deciding that it wouldn’t be her.
What was I thinking? Bring it on, Bub, and I’ll make you tear out that scraggy bun of hair.
So, on a fine morning in late October, Bub, Elsie and I climb into the Centre minibus. Marlon, the youth leader, is driving. He’s going to jump with us at his own expense. I feel reassured by having a strong young man on our team. What can go wrong when we’re with Marlon?
‘Most of my mates have been sky-diving,’ says Marlon, as we zoom along the motorway. ‘They all say it’s better than sex and they wish they could jump every weekend. I’ve been saving up for months.’
Before I know it, we’re being ushered into a preparation zone at the private airfield. We’re shown an instruction video before they give us air-suits to put on over our own clothes. Bub and I zip up each other’s suits, down the sides of our legs and crotch to neck. Much to her annoyance, I refuse to take off my thick sweater.
‘Keep still, girl! I’ve had less trouble getting my grandson into his snow suit, and he’s only two.’
Bub ties my leather cap far too tight under my chin, and I’m unable to lift my arms high enough to loosen it. I look like a weatherproof sausage, and I’m about as mobile as one. I’m sorry for Bub’s little grandson, for whom this must be a daily experience.
Then we’re introduced to the instructors to whom we’re going to be strapped for our jump. Elsie makes a beeline for the most senior – a stern-faced woman with biceps like rugby balls. A young Norse god approaches Marlon, tossing back curls from his noble forehead. Bub strikes up an instant rapport with a cheerful ex-military type. My luck being what it is, I get the guy with a bad cold. He looks me up and down, his expression indicating that he didn’t think his day could get any worse until he saw me.
‘It’s only a small plane, you know,’ he says. ‘We have to think about weight.’
‘She can jump all right. I know she looks chunky, but it’s mostly clothes. The silly mare won’t take off her sweater.’
At a stroke, Bub has put paid to the instructor’s hopes of staying on the ground with an aspirin and a hot lemon drink, along with my chances of getting out of this ridiculous stunt. Mr. Sniffy and I are stuck with each other, with no possibility of escape. The two of us trail behind the others to the plane.
Inside, it’s crowded and noisy. Along one side sit the solo jumpers. A group of men on a corporate bonding exercise are encouraging each other with loud laughter and sweary jokes. There’s a hen party whose painted faces have a Hallowe’en theme. I spot cats, devils and, for the bride, Mrs. Shrek. We haven’t left the ground, but they’ve already begun to squeal.
Before we settle into our cramped positions, Elsie shares her wealth of experience: ‘I’ll be jumping first, so you’ll have to get in before me, otherwise I can’t get out. Remember to keep your hands folded, and be sure to hold each shoulder as you leave the plane, so that you don’t hit your instructor or the plane parts. Remember, it’s a propeller plane. You’ll sit on the edge and tuck your feet in, and the instructor will wrap his feet around you. You have to tumble, and you don’t want the instructor’s feet flying around your head.’
‘It sounds like a position from the Karma Sutra.’ Bub’s whispered comment sends her instructor and the hen party into shrieks of laughter. Mr. Sniffy joins in and, much to my disgust, has a coughing fit. Marlon and young Thor look blank. Classic erotic texts are probably not on their reading lists.
Our nonagenarian role model tucks herself into the instructor’s six-pack like a wrinkly baby kangaroo. For her, it’s all in the day’s work. The rest of us are finding ways to adopt intimate positions with strangers, without even dinner and a movie to encourage us. Bub and Marlon look as if they’re warming to the experience. So am I, until Mr. Sniffy spoils the moment by wiping his nose on my shoulder. Eventually, we manage to fasten the leather straps that bind us to our instructors. Elsie sits at the front, then Marlon, with Bub behind him. I’m to jump last, so Mr. Sniffy and I are squeezed together in the farthest corner.
Bub, who is enjoying the captive audience, comes up with another gem that sends everyone into gales of laughter: ‘Please, nobody fart!’
Some hope. Even if there were enough space inside my air suit for an anal exhale, I’d have no chance of letting it escape with Mr. Sniffy’s bony knees clamped to my ears.
The plane goes up slowly, in a spiral motion. People shout over the noise of the engine, until the pilot begins to call out the heights. Then everyone goes quiet. When we reach 10,000 feet, I manage to turn my head half an inch to ask Mr. Sniffy a question. ‘Aren’t we high enough?’
His answer chills me to the bone. ‘There’s no cloud today. The pilot can see the ground clear below her, so she’ll take us up to 15,000 feet.’
That’s when Elsie starts to sing. I recognise the tune, which I know as ‘John Brown’s Body’, but at first, I can’t make out the words.
‘13,000 feet,’ yells the pilot, and silence fills the plane.
The words of Elsie’s song are now all too audible. ‘He jumped from forty thousand feet without a parachute, and he ain’t gonna jump no more!’
Even Bub is shaken. ‘Bloody hell, Elsie!’
Before she has time to say more, we hit 15,000 feet. An instructor wearing wrap-around goggles positions himself by the door, and two confident-looking people with impressive cameras join him. Goggles calls the corporate team up first, and one of the photographers drops backwards out of the hatch.
‘Smile!’ says Goggles.
The corporates jump, one after the other, unhesitating, each of them calling out a personalised war cry. I imagine them posing in mid-fall, arms and legs outstretched, hoping their airborne image will make the cover of the company’s monthly mag.
The hen party are up next. They shriek and wriggle, pretending to be scared, but when Goggles orders them to smile, they do. With huge grins cracking their face paint, they follow the photographer into the sky, screaming unprintable war cries. Mrs. Shrek jumps first, then the devils, and last, the pussycats. Obviously, there’s some kind of face-paint hierarchy. Those pics are going to look amazing on Instagram.
Now our party are alone on the plane, and Goggles is giving us meaningful looks. Elsie is still singing, and we can hear every bloodthirsty word. ‘Glory, glory what a helluva way to die, when you’re hanging by your knickers and you don’t know how to fly!’
‘Come on, darling!’ Goggles is waiting by the hatch.
Strapped tightly to her instructor, Elsie positions herself on the edge, white hair swirling in the wind. She sings, ‘They scraped him off the runway like a lump of strawberry jam, and he ain’t gonna jump no more!’
And then she’s gone.
Marlon says, ‘That song has proper scared me. I can’t jump.’
Bub’s instructor lets out a whoop. ‘I win!’
Young Thor pokes him in the ribs. ‘Shut up. It’s not over yet.’
‘But I’ve got first dibs. You know I always bet on the macho ones.’
This gets Marlon’s attention. ‘Who are you calling macho?’
Thor tries to calm his client: ‘Pay no attention to Action Man. He’s just jealous.’
Bub puts two and two together, and for once she makes four. ‘Are you saying that you bet on who’s most likely to chicken out?’
‘Of course. It’s boring, doing the same thing every day. You’ve got to make it interesting. Your mate is the first refuser this week, so there’s a decent roll-over.’
I’ve had enough. My dander is up: ‘Marlon, if you’re going to jump, jump. That goes for you too, Bub. If you’re not, get out of my way. I haven’t gone through all this shit just to catch a cold.’
Thor gives Marlon a full-body shove. ‘Let’s go. You don’t want Action Man here to win the roll-over, do you? My name’s on that.’
Before I know it, Marlon and Bub have both jumped, and I’m the last woman standing. Goggles folds his arms and looks at me. ‘Get a move on, love. I’ve got a table booked for lunch at one.’
‘Do you want to open the parachute?’ Mr. Sniffy shoves a stick into my hand. I clasp it for a moment. It sounds like an exciting thing to do, but I give back the control when I remember that he’s the one being paid to take risks.
And then, miles and miles of stillness. No music, no laughter, no wind. The parachute fills up with air, but I can’t feel it. I’m aware of nothing but my instructor’s voice. ‘Look to the right, and you see the city. To the left, the ocean.’
Below me is a farm. The sheep look like dots in a sea of green. It’s a wonderful sight. My mind goes blank, because my eyes are doing the work. I lose all sense of time, because this experience is timeless. I’m drifting.
When the ground approaches, I remember to land with my feet up, so as not to break a leg.
‘I’m glad that’s over. It was my first time,’ I say, as Mr Sniffy helps me up.
He sneezes. ‘Mine too. I only passed the instructor course yesterday.’
Back at the Community Centre, Erica is waiting for what she insists on calling a ‘debrief’. We tell her about Elsie’s scary song, which almost stopped us jumping, and she puts on her managerial face. ‘Elsie, what were you thinking?’
‘It was my brother, Ernie’s, favourite song. He used to sing it all the time.’
‘But your brother didn’t jump out of aeroplanes, did he, Elsie?’
‘No, he flew them. He was a pilot at the start of the War. He got his wings when he was twenty-two and, a month later, he was shot down and killed. All our family went to the military cemetery in Holland for his seventieth anniversary. We stood around the grave and sang to him. “They scraped him off the runway like a lump of strawberry jam, and he ain’t gonna jump no more!” Ernie would have loved it. That song kept his spirits up. I always give him a wave when I’m sky-diving – up in heaven. If there’s an accident and I end up joining him, well, at my age, there are worse ways to go.’
Erica holds up her hands in disbelief. ‘I suppose it’s a generational thing. You seem to have had a good time, Lovey. Where’s Marlon?’
I’d seen Marlon and Thor heading for the pub. ‘Sorry, Erica, I don’t know.’
‘Did you enjoy it, Bub?’
‘Me? I had my eyes shut the whole time.’
Loarn is currently trying to place her first crime novel and working on a range of short stories she aims to self-publish this year. Her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students, she also volunteers and has recently passed British Sign Language Level 2. ‘Trick’ is the latest instalment in her series ‘Up the Community Centre‘ which she generously writes for Funny Pearls.