Sunshine (Chapter One, maybe)
By Tipp Hex
Flying. Rational answers to irrational fears don’t work. What I need is a drink.
‘Captain Hollis would like a word. Everything alright, Mr Saunders?’
I guess the drink will have to wait. Before she can put a sympathetic hand on my arm, I climb from the seat.
‘I’m fine, just tickety boo, thank you.’
She smiles politely and moves away, the aroma of Channel Five, soap and corporate hospitality lingering in her wake. The Lear jet is not ostentatious, but still luxurious. The cockpit is alive with screens, technology bleeding a river of information.
The Captain, Hollis, is young, late twenties. I like that. Older hands can be resistant to change; sometimes they fly by the seat of their pants right into the ground. Then again young guns, perhaps like Hollis, sometimes don’t fly at all, trusting their computers even when their computers have stopped computing.
‘It’s the weather, Mr Saunders, sorry for the delay, but we should be off within fifteen minutes.’
‘No, just snow, it’s not a problem for us, but it is for the ground crew, they’re struggling with things a bit, don’t worry.’
Jesus, I’m not hiding my flying phobia very well. It’s dark and the snow is getting thicker. Starting to settle and the ramp is covered in tracks from vehicles tending the aircraft. Ground crew, bright spots of orange in hi-viz jackets, hunch and scurry against the wind.
‘It’s a bitch of a night, ain’t it?’
‘I’ve flown worse, Mr Saunders.’
‘Call me, Jack, Captain. Well, you might’ve, but I don’t think I have …’
‘I’m Nick,’ he says, holding out his hand.
It’s disconcertingly limp when I really needed it to be strong and confident. A fly-guy full of the ‘right stuff’. Chuck Yeager at the controls. Confident, strong, ready to deal with any emergency.
‘My co-pilot here is Ruth.’
Ruth had her head buried in check-sheets when I entered, now she turned and shot me a real cool Chuck Yeager smile. Early twenties, blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, eyes blue, sharp and flinty. Danger warnings sounding in my head.
Her shake was firm and as hard as those eyes. No dumb blonde here. I like her.
‘Yes, I know.’
‘Sure, I make it a point of knowing who it is I fly’.
The danger claxon inside my head ranked up.
‘So you know all about me, huh?’
‘Actually, no. Just your name. Oh, and that you’re an investigator.’
‘Insurance. Nothing like the movies or Magnum PI. And no Ferrari.’
‘No? That’s a shame.’
I glanced at Nick who was studiously consulting his instruments. Ruth was staring openly at me with a hint of a smile. Damn.
‘Sure is. Well, I better let you two get on with flying this tin tube out of this place. Good luck with the weather.’
‘Enjoy the flight, Jack.’ She says, those eyes drilling right into me.
‘Yeah, right, thanks …’
Back to my seat and I have something to distract my mind. Ruth.
‘Would you care for a drink? Coffee? Tea?’
‘Thanks. Whisky, no ice.’
Moments later my back is pressed into the leather as the aircraft accelerates along the runway. Every thump from the wheels and every scream from the engine is the last note of disaster. Things blessedly smooth as the wheels leave the ground and I’m pointed towards heaven, or more likely, Hell.
A hand on my arm is shaking me.
‘Mr Saunders, you ok?’
The ever-attentive attendant is back. The plane is in clear air, high above the storm below. My face feels damp and cold.
‘Yes, I’m fine. But, I might have another whisky.’
Six hours later, through another hell of landing, I’m there, in Saudi Arabia and Ruth is standing at the exit door, waiting.
‘Sorry I gave you such a bumpy ride,’ she says, smiling.
Neither my stomach nor head are in the right place for the smart-arse reply that line needed.
‘Bumpy? I hadn’t really noticed.’ Lame, and she knew it.
‘Uh huh, sure. We’re checked at the Marriott for the next two nights, dull place, but good food.’
‘Same here. No bars, right?’
‘Just have to make our own entertainment then, I guess.’
‘Uh huh,’ she says, disappearing back into the cockpit as I ignore the strident alarm claxon in my head.
Stepping from the aircraft into the night air is like walking into a jet exhaust of heat. On the Red Sea coast, the city of Jeddah is humid, dusty, hot and dry. No whisky here, legally anyway. My shirt is sucked onto my skin in the few steps it takes to reach the transfer limousine, then deep-frozen by the vehicles air-conditioning. The terminal buildings are equally cold as I’m processed, stamped and authorized to visit this fabulously wealthy desert Kingdom. Joy. Deep joy.