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Episode six of the Meanjin podcast features Fatima Measham on postcode superiority, Julie Chevalier reads a poem passing through and Rachel Buchanan reflects on the end of the newspaper  >

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Measured Turbulence

A.S. Patric

Measured Turbulence, new fiction from A.S. Patric

From the black, freefalling nothingness the voice emerges with an absolute American calm. That television-friendly NASA cadence of confidence: everything is A-OK. The pilot speaks soothingly about the turbulence. The muttered ‘motherfucker’ at the end of the transmission makes Keith blink, although it doesn’t destroy his confidence. The lights flicker back to life as the plane continues to vibrate. He isn’t feeling any fear. If anything, he’s bored.

Julia can go on and on when the subject is her soul. She believes in the sacred spaces of her inner life, and within the confines of their airplane seats there’s no escape. ‘The best thing about this dream is that it was weird in that great way, where you’re almost thinking while you’re asleep, this is so cool it’s like a film by Buñuel.’

‘Who’s Buñuel?’

‘You’ve heard of David Lynch?’

‘Of course.’

‘Same difference. I was travelling for days and days, and after what seems like years I finally get to the North Pole. I find when I’m there that it’s mostly submerged rock and not even white with snow and ice. It’s slate blue.’ She takes the final sip of scotch from the bottom of her plastic glass. ‘The North Pole was weird.’

‘Seems like an ecological message.’

‘Dreams don’t do those kinds of messages. I think it’s saying something about my soul. Maybe it’s my relationship to the divine.’

‘Do you think they’ll get the entertainment up and running again? There were one or two films I wouldn’t mind seeing.’

‘It’s all Hollywood poison, Keith. You’ve really got to check your tolerance for that kind of corporate corruption.’ She raises the plastic glass then puts it down when she sees it’s empty. ‘Is my dream trying to say that my heart or soul, or whatever, is submerged in the icy water somewhere distant and it’s turned into stone?’

She looks at Keith. He shrugs and blinks at her. She continues, ‘Whatever it means, a blue-slate soul can’t be good. Global catastrophe isn’t a positive symbol whether you take that dream to a gypsy or a shrink.’

‘Maybe you should go back to sleep,’ Keith suggested.

‘I wanted to tell you before I forgot.’

‘Thanks for that. Go back to sleep now.’

Keith isn’t interested in dreams. His girlfriend’s dreams are no exception. He lifts his hand for the flight attendant since the button seems to be useless for getting anyone to come and attend to his needs. He’s been pressing it and waving his arm for the last few minutes with no success. He’s now considering whistling.

Julia swallows another sleeping pill even though it hasn’t been that long since she had the two that were supposed to fix her for most of the trip. Three pills is a lot of sedation, and he wonders whether it’s dangerous. Her fear of flying is extreme. She had nightmares before the trip to the States and again prior to the trip back to Sydney.

Keith arches his back and makes himself tall. He waves his fingers in the air and purses his lips but can’t make himself go through with the whistle. The flight attendant finally comes over with a severe expression. ‘I can’t give you another vodka-orange, sir. We’re moving through turbulence.’ She has bent over to explain and now she unfolds as though that was that.

‘What? What kind of turbulence?’

‘Severe turbulence, sir. The overhead light is telling you to put on your seatbelt. And you’ve been told to return your seats into an upright position. Could you please tell your wife to follow those instructions.’ The plane bucks and the attendant stumbles forwards and sprawls across their laps.

‘She’s not my wife,’ he tells the attendant as she struggles to get up.

‘I don’t care who she is. Look after her,’ the attendant says and pushes away.

‘One drink! I’ve been waiting for ten minutes. What about making up for lost time? I’ll throw it back like a shot.’ She doesn’t bother replying and turns to attend to other raised arms.

The plane drops again into flickering lights and a moment of freefall. He feels his stomach rise in a brutal heave. He still wants that drink. Julia is dead to the world and he can’t get her seat up from the reclining position. The plane has been rattling around for the last hour. It shakes violently now and hail scatters across the small windows.

There’s a boy sitting over the aisle about to start crying. His father is next to him, looking out his window, saying, ‘Oh my fucking God, that does not look good.’ His son stares straight ahead into a laptop console, trying to focus on a film breaking up in lines of static. He has his headphones on, so maybe he doesn’t hear his father say, ‘God fucken hell, it’s the end of the world out there!’

When he notices Keith staring, he doesn’t disguise his fear. ‘I can’t believe how much lightning there is,’ he tells Keith. ‘And isn’t metal a magnet for lightning?’

Keith looks away from the frightened man, saying, ‘What’s that, honey?’ as if he now needs to tend to his recumbent girlfriend. Julia has her eyes closed placidly and her mouth has formed a slightly pursed expression resembling that of a contented baby. Strange dreams of the North Pole aren’t an issue at the moment, apparently. He pulls up her blanket, settling it around her neck, and makes a show of tending to her womanly fears.

Keith has always disliked sleeping pills. He reaches into Julia’s handbag and looks for the small plastic bottle. He pulls out a few things. Her makeup bag, diary and duty-free carton of cigarettes. Eventually he finds the empty bottle in an outside pocket. Not even one last pill. He runs his pinkie around the inside to make sure.

He opens the diary to distract himself, leafing through the pages at random. He stops at a mention of his own name. It says: Seeing Keith bark like a little dog was hilarious. It was also so terribly sad. I suppose the hypnotist had to prove a point. The incredulous patient, sneering at even the idea of hypnosis, made to get down on all fours and scamper around the office. He even sniffed at Dr Fassbinder’s bottom and that may have been the saddest thing of all. That was certainly going too far. The doctor hadn’t imagined how receptive a patient Keith would end up being. Needless to say Keith won’t even consider a cigarette now. In fact, he’s sure he was never a smoker. Ironically, I’m smoking again and it’s only been three days since we went to see Dr Fassbinder.

Keith turns the pages again, this time looking for mention of Fassbinder. Another entry begins, We went to see the helpful Dr Fassbinder about Keith’s sexual inadequacies

The lights in the plane are flickering and Keith is shaken out of the absorbing diary by prolonged darkness. Emergency lighting comes on. Keith looks at his sleeping girlfriend and then at her handbag and the carton of duty-free smokes and can’t remember ever having smoked. The thought makes his throat tighten until he can barely breathe. He looks at the diary in his hands again and has no recollection of even going to see a Dr Fassbinder, let alone barking like a little dog.

Keith unbuckles and staggers towards the back where he can see an emergency light that he will be able to use to read more of his girlfriend’s journal. The flight attendant who denied him alcohol doesn’t admonish him or tell him to go back to his seat because she’s sitting with a Bible in her hands and her lips are moving in avid prayer. Her eyes open to register his presence, then close again as she continues.

‘Where’s the vodka?’ Keith asks. ‘I don’t want to disturb you but I really need a drink.’

‘Fuck off, arsehole. I’m trying to pray.’

‘I … what? Why? I don’t think you’re supposed to do that. Praying can cause hysteria if passengers see a flight attendant doing it. Don’t they train you for this?’

‘They can’t train you to die.’

‘It’s just turbulence.’ Keith was barely holding onto a shelving unit fixed into the wall, from which packets of food were dropping to the floor. It was still a bit much already to be talking about death.

‘Just turbulence? Have you noticed the engines dying outside? Or noticed the way the plane has begun leaning to the side and the constant drop in altitude? Not to mention shit falling to the floor all around you.’

‘Well, yeah. That’s called turbulence. Planes go through turbulence all the time. It’s 2011, not 1911. Even when planes crash, there’s all kinds of safety procedures in place, you know, to stop people from actually dying.’

‘Get the fuck away from me, you gormless joker.’

She closes her eyes again. Keith contemplates slapping or lifting her and shaking her by the shoulders. Amid the sudden drops and upheavals of the plane, the sickening slides left and right, the wild movements every few moments, she would barely feel it. It gives him an idea as he watches the large-breasted flight attendant pray.

When the plane sways again he falls on her. It takes a few moments before she realises it isn’t an accident and by then Keith has wrestled her breasts from her shirt and bra. He has a mouthful of nipple by the time she decides to ditch her Bible in favour of a fuck. She reaches down to release Keith’s penis from his pants, yet fucking in midair is never easy, and amid the turbulence it’s almost impossible.

‘The toilet. Stop, you stupid motherfucker. Stop. The toilet over there. Let’s get into that cubicle. It’s the only place this is possible.’ It takes Keith a few long moments to understand that the flight attendant’s protestations are not angry refusals, that they are forceful directions for how they might proceed to a shared goal.

‘What about a blow job?’ Keith asks when they enter the cubicle.

‘Selfish dumbshit bastard.’ She drops her dress and yanks down her pantyhose and underwear. ‘I want to fuck. Get your dick out.’

Keith feels like asking the flight attendant to moderate her language, or at least pointing out that there is an emotional element to sex even for men, however eager they are to fuck. Getting a proper hard-on during this kind of turbulence would challenge a porn star. Flying into the mouth of this kind of abuse, so to speak, makes it still less inviting. Dropping trou, he is surprised by the enormity of his penis. He hadn’t been surprised that Julia mentioned his problems in her journal, and the current proud state of his penis is a testament to Dr Fassbinder’s medical proficiency.

The flight attendant pulls Keith towards her with a good grip of his penis and supports herself on the small sink in the cubicle. When Keith establishes some kind of stability—using his arms and legs to brace himself in a space that feels as if it is in the process of imploding—she levers herself onto him.

Keith isn’t a great lover. His experience has always been with women who’d agreed to live with him, and the sex was more a part of a general agreement of the accepted relationship. The flight attendant was a different breed of woman. If women were birds, then he’d only ever fed crumbs to pigeons. And if he’d had the pleasure of stroking a cockie below its frilled neck, saying stupid things like ‘who’s a lucky bird then’, the flight attendant was a fierce creature with talons diving a hundred metres from the thin air to tear apart a scrambling field mouse.

She is able to move her whole body from the point of contact it makes with his penis and, using it as a fulcrum, both of them rotate and sway and rock and jerk and thrust, and slowly move in coordinated millimetres and milliseconds of sashaying shifts, and then longer and harder with a menacing speed, until he feels she will tear him away at the root.

Judicious use of pain, both with the nails in his back and her teeth on his lips, heels in his hips, expertly keep him from his usual eager explosion, until he is so desperate for release that all he can do is stare towards the ceiling, blindly trying to find a way to blink through an ecstasy of pain. It’s only when she has found her final pleasure that she allows him release—the field mouse carried up high into the air and torn apart to reveal a cosmos of stars in the spill of blood from his small trembling heart.

All the lights have been extinguished and the cubicle is tumbling over and over as if it is a can thrown from the window of truck that is rocketing out from a road high up in the mountains. When the toilet cubicle finally comes to a stop the flight attendant is a crumpled cushion of blood and bones below him. A tragic shape of a woman, one eye closed and one open and bright green, with a name tag on her shoulder: Grace.

The door has peeled open at its top, though the cubicle is now lying on its side. It takes Keith a few minutes of kicking to get enough space to crawl through. It’s only after he’s out that the pain in his side becomes more than an annoying sensation of numbness, intermittently feeling swollen and hot with pain. When he lifts his shirt, he finds that the flesh is getting dark. He’s seen enough films to know it’s the result of internal bleeding.

Keith has been blinking and sitting on a floating piece of the plane’s wreckage but it begins to sink. When he goes under the cold water of the Pacific Ocean, he wakes from a daze as deep as the darkest dream he’s ever had. He paddles and looks for something else to hold onto. Bodies bob and sway around him in the black water. There are many other things floating across the surface. Packets of food and bottles. Various plastics and personal effects belonging to the passengers.

The sea is placid and it’s becoming a lovely day as the early morning succeeds the evening storm. The immense dark cloud moves away from him and the floating debris, still flashing with lightning on the horizon. More of the wreckage sinks and the quiet passengers drift further apart.

The water isn’t so cold as to be unpleasant and it cools the pain in Keith’s kidney. He removes the yellow floatation jacket from one of the corpses and begins looking for Julia. It’s unlikely she’s survived. He begins swimming around, becoming desperate as fear finally begins to trickle into his heart.

Not once during the whole event did he feel any real anxiety. Since he’s always been petrified of the thought of flight (just as bad as Julia, he now recalls), it strikes Keith as being attributable only to the arts of Dr Fassbinder that during the crash he was distracted by other things. Keith blinks at the idea that a man could go to his death more than half asleep. That he need not ever be fully awake before he is utterly and permanently asleep.

He finds Julia lolling on her back in a yellow floatation jacket of her own, which someone else must have strapped onto her while he was in the cubicle with the flight attendant. Julia looks as if she’s still asleep because of the three sleeping pills, yet she can’t be. Keith swims towards her, feeling heavier and heavier. He can barely move his arms.

Julia is well beyond the rest of the debris—drifting away. Nearby, he sees an inflatable raft that was no doubt automatically released from the crashing plane. There’s no-one sitting in it. The bodies around Keith bob around as they get caught on Pacific tides with Julia.

Keith struggles to get into the raft. It takes repeated efforts to swing a heavy leg over the side and to haul his wet body across. He lies there gasping when he manages to tumble inside. He rows towards his dead girlfriend. Every pull on the paddle draws a gasp of agony. Shifting from one side of the boat is even more painful so he heads towards Julia in an arc. Keith pulls her into the boat with a long groan as his side tears even further. There are painkillers in the raft’s medical box and he takes a handful of them like M&M’s.

There’s a transmitter that will send their coordinates to those who will come searching for the submerged plane. Keith activates it but he’s getting so weak and dizzy he can’t be sure that he has managed to press the button. The red flashing light is telling him something is wrong or perhaps it’s telling him the message is being sent already. He can’t keep his eyes open any longer. He pulls Julia to him.

Keith kisses her face and imagines that it is warm. Julia mumbles as he begins to float off into the darkness of the midday sky, ‘You really are such a lovely little dog.’ Keith coughs. Even to his ears it sounds like barking.



© A.S. Patric 2012

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