Kalpana’s parents have left her again.
She throws herself back in her seat, as hard as she can, so that it rocks and screeches. Everyone calls her Pana except her parents, and they aren’t here. Her face glowers out from under a darker fringe, the red hood of her jumper, and the enveloping seat. She seems to be disappearing into it.
The attendant smiles and leans forward over the empty space beside Pana to buckle up her seatbelt, low and tight. All slicked-up hair and red-white smile. Pretty fingernails, each nail a scream in a fresh loud colour. They pat Pana’s and withdraw as the attendant moves on to speak to the men in the back row behind her.
In three months’ time Pana will eight. In four years’ time she’ll be able to do this journey alone. She won’t even need the stupid papers and the escort between flights. Her parents will probably make her keep doing it all the same, until she is fifteen. They are going on holiday and she is going to be left with Gran, who will sit her alone at a table with a pile of her parents’ textbooks unpacked on an embroidered tablecloth. Everything there is covered in cat hair, and smells of spices and old cabbage.
She wonders what Rome is like. Will her parents be happy there? It’s probably awful. Having decided this, Pana brightens. They are sure to have a terrible time without her.
The television screen in the headrest is black. Pana tries pressing it with one finger, hard. It leaves a sticky residue. She looks out the window instead. It is black outside, too, and rain spatters on the thick glass, making uneasy ripples of orange light in darkness.
She rocks the seatback again, with less gusto now that she knows the attendant is no longer looking. Heads and heads of people: the flight is nearly full. She prays no one will sit next to her. There is only one row behind her, with two people in it to be annoyed by her seat-rocking. I don’t care if it makes the two big men behind me as miserable as me, Pana decides, and almost immediately glances back nervously, worried that they will be.
A huge face smiles back through the gap between the seats. His breath smells like fast food, oily and salty, but not unpleasant: like fried meat just off from burning. The face is directly behind her, so close that she can only see one huge brown eye twinkling at hers.
The man next to him, the one in the suit, glances up and smiles too, gentle and disinterested. He sits heavy in the aisle, and his legs are crossed wide.
Pana snaps back, skin prickling hotly, and tries the buttons on the television again with great concentration. Her entertainment system is broken. The screen is as black as the rain-slicked window and might as well have been one for all her power to alter it. She wants to make herself very small in her seat, face-forwards, encased in headphones and a movie and her overlarge jumper, but can’t make herself disappear. Everything stops her short. Instead she has to be here and listen to all the jabbering and the chaos.
Pana closes her eyes and concentrates on the click of every luggage compartment shutting down the length of the cabin; the thrum of the engine growing to a shuddering roar; and snatches of every conversation that refuses to be drowned by the noise of take-off.
In front of her a couple are whispering earnestly. Across the aisle, a tremulous chorus from a group of elderly men and women. If only she could hear the whole exchange Pana might have been able to switch off her brain, which in spite of her works frantically to fill in the gaps.
She can hear the two men behind her more clearly. That’s funny, because they are obviously trying to modulate their voices far lower than natural. She hears Meat-breath, smiler and starer and eater of burgers, confirming her first impression by talking about food. His accent is so thick that for the first few sentences she can’t tell if he is speaking English. As her ears adjust, she finds his enunciation is proper, measured, and textbook-perfect. It only sounds as though he is speaking English from underneath a treacle-bucket. His accent is viscous.
Pana hasn’t heard that accent before, but is familiar with the twang of someone who has bolstered their studies with American television.
“The burgers at court – the food court – with the yellow sign, the picture of the cow, that one – amazing. Delicious! In a place like this, I am impressed. I had two, yes, and I will tell you frankly that I could have eaten more. I love the food of this country. I have consumed as much as possible during my time here. I am hungry again, already. Very nearly. But one should not give in to these impulses, should one?” he laughs jovially, and there is a slapping sound, as though patting a copious belly. Accompanying is the ring of jangling metal. Idly Pana plays with her own golden bangles in a kind of fellow feeling. Clearly it is a joke, because he is not conspicuously overweight, from what Pana saw in her mortifying glance.
The Suit says nothing in reply. Pana keeps her eyes closed and listens untempted by the impulse to look around. She is beginning to enjoy her secret vantage point.
“You should try, next time. Do you travel this route often, friend?”
The silence aches like a bruise. Pana hears a grunt and a rustle of clothing.
Undeterred, the first man keeps talking.
“I have never been on an aeroplane before,” he says. There is a tremulousness of some genuine excitement. “Or to an airport. I have travelled, yes, but never by aeroplane. It is very interesting. It is for this reason that I enquire whether you travel frequently.”
Pana finds herself bringing her skinny brown arms together, wringing her hands, curling her whole body in awkward sympathy for Meat-breath. He is only trying to have a friendly conversation, and the man next to him is giving less than nothing back. Pana would have stopped trying, but the speaker keeps going with his treacle-thick voice and his enthusiasm and his proper enunciation. It is awful, and she can’t stop listening.
“The airport itself,” expounds the first man, “it is very interesting. I have the unique opportunity to observe many different people from many different places. Many interesting dresses. Some very tasty things. A vast spectrum of relationships, behaviours. There is no place like it that I have seen on this earth. I think,” he concludes thoughtfully, “I could spend more time at airports. Yes, I could happily spend more time at airports.”
When Suit finally speaks, it is in the gravelly tone of a heavy smoker. Whether that is the affliction of the throat, or the tiredness in it, she can’t tell. It sounds like the voice of a man who has not only smoked a lot, but who has seen rather a lot, and doesn’t particularly want to see any more. He doesn’t want to hear any more, either. On this point he is explicit.
“I think you are reasonable, so I am going to talk to you as if we are two reasonable people.”
“Thank you very much, my friend,” says Meat-breath conversationally.
“I’m going to tell you something,” continues Suit, “and you’re going to listen to me very carefully, and then you’re going to do exactly as I say. You’re going to shut your mouth. You’re going to just shut your mouth for five fucking minutes. Then you’re going to keep doing that for the rest of the flight. You are not going to say a single fucking word until we reach the airport. Now, I am going to sit back, and I am going to read my in-flight magazine, and I am going to think about Tahiti, and we are not going to talk.”
Pana’s mouth is a silent ‘o’ of shock: she finds this excessive. She opens her eyes and cranes her neck to see if anyone else is paying attention. The attendant is out of sight. Everyone is facing forwards watching movies, now. She must have missed getting her headphones. She wonders if the attendant will come back.
There is the sound of a mouth opening and beginning to form a word, but not quite getting as far as the first syllable. With a rustle of clothing it’s pressed shut.
“I’m going to ask you a question,” continues the voice, gravelly and soft, “and you’re still not going to say anything. You’re going to nod for yes, or shake your head for no. Here’s the question: can you do that? Can you do that for me?”
Nothing. Pana writhes: she can’t see what Meat-breath’s response is. She certainly isn’t going to look around.
The show is over. Pana looks at her fellow passengers, immersed in working headsets and video screens. She wondered what she’s missed, but the movie doesn’t seem as appealing any more. It is only a few hours until landing.
In comfort and idleness Pana sits, and flicks through the in-flight magazine, and reads about the meals (fish or beef, but she is vegetarian). Women’s voices and clattering carry through from the front of the plane. The smell of in-flight meals wafts through the cabin, recirculated until it sticks to every surface like a substance.
“Don’t say ‘tasty’.”
They are talking again. Unbelievable. Pana’s head snaps back up. It isn’t even Meat-breath: it is, incredibly, the Suit.
“Don’t say tasty when you’re looking at people. Even if it’s a pretty girl, a pretty woman, it’s – well – just don’t say it, alright?”
“Alright,” says the first man thickly. He sounds cowed, like a smacked puppy. “Anyway, how do you know I was not talking about food? You do not listen to me.”
Pana wonders if they know each other. On the tail of that thought she hears a name, and almost laughs aloud at the confirmation. She squashes it, and in silence she rocks with chuckling in the folds of her seat.
“Milogost, I always listen. It’s you who does not listen.”
Are they friends? What friendship is this! Pana has a best friend back home, Rachel, and because she has to go away to Gran’s they aren’t going to be able to see each other all holidays. It is awful. Pana promised to write every day, and as always, Rachel swore the same, though she’d never received any letters on her previous trips. They must have gotten lost in the post, Rachel said.
Could this be what friendship looked like?
“I don’t believe you even talk, Milogost. You just string words together like a parrot.”
“I do not know parrots,” says Milogost. “And you must call me Milo, Wilfredwalden. I tell you this repeatedly. Would you care for a cigarette?”
Wilfredwalden. That’s another funny name.
“NO!” says Wilfredwalden, and it’s so loud Pana is reminded they’ve been trying to whisper. “No,” he continues, seething quietly now. “You can’t smoke on the flight. You can’t smoke on any plane anymore. Are you trying to torture me? When did you pick up smoking? Where did you get cigarettes?”
Now it’s the not-friend who gives back silence.
“Forget it. The job will be finished, soon, and then I’ll be rid of you.”
The Suit – Wilfredwalden – begins then to count aloud, backwards from thirty. It sounds like he’s hardly moving his teeth, but each number grates in her ears. He passes on mercilessly to the next. His throat has gravel in it, and like bile, he’s bringing up words.
It gives Pana time to wonder what the job is, and if it’s so soon as to take place on this very flight, and finally to tell herself she’s been watching too many movies and reading her own books under the bedcovers at night. She’ll have a break from that at Gran’s. They’re colleagues, work colleagues. How boring.
The aeroplane sings. It thrums as it moves, and hums as it pumps air and rainfall drums off it, the seatback is squeaking, and the little clusters together make choruses, and Wilfredwalden is counting along.
When he reaches zero, which takes more than thirty seconds, he says quietly, “It’s Walden. Wilfred Walden.”
Pana snickers and covers her mouth with her hands, thinking Wilfredwalden really isn’t the worst thing he could be called. If a boy had a name like that in her school, they’d call him Willy, for sure.
“This is exactly what I am saying. I try my best,” laments Milogost. “But it seems that everything I do is wrong to you people. Do I not speak clearly? Even you tell me that my English is good on one occasion. I lost my temper only once. Only once. I wish only to work, and then to send for my family. I try my best, but I did not know what to expect, how could I, I did not have sufficient time here before they netted me. You call me illegal alien, utterly you dismiss me. You are not even sending me home, I do not believe you people, you will dump me at my last stop. Like so much garbage. I believe everyone wants to improve themselves, improve things for themselves, and oh in horrible darkness, I travelled horrible long.”
“I don’t like your tone,” says Walden.
“I am hungry,” Milo adds, as an afterthought. Apparently satisfied with his rant, and feeling relief washing over him, he makes a contented noise as if occupied in stretching out his limbs. There’s that jangling sound again.
Pana is surprised by Walden’s response. She expects he’ll be grumpy. The concentration it took to comprehend Milogost’s rant has made even Pana resentful.
“Well, you’re in luck, Milo,” he says. Walden trying to be sprightly is awful: it’s in the same low, gravelly rasp. If that’s what he’s doing, it sounds indistinguishable from sarcasm. “Can you smell that, eh? Everyone gets a meal on this flight. The attendant is about to walk down with the trolley. I want us to be very clear about this. Look at me, look me in the eyes. Milo.” The sound of snapping fingers. “When she comes to us, you are not going to move. I am going to get your meal for you, and I am going to make sure you get it, just like we did at the airport.”
“I accept,” says Milogost. “I enjoyed it extremely much when you fed me at the airport. I can taste it on these teeth. I remember, you brought it to me on a tray, all plastic, and told me to enjoy it while I could. You are very kind.”
“Yes,” murmurs Walden. “I did say that.”
“I like you, Wilfredwalden,” says Milogost quietly. “It is a pity.”
“I have a job to do. I am doing my job. I am a professional,” Walden says, and he’s repeating it like the numbers. “We’re parting ways. When it’s over, I’m throwing my hat in the air, I’m having a fucking cigarette. We are never seeing each other again. It’s not a pity.”
“You are not wearing a hat.”
“It’s a figure of speech. Look, Milogost, I don’t like you. Not after what you did at the coffee shop. You’re sick. You’ve got serious issues, mate. I’m trying to be professional.”
“You are doing well.”
Walden sighs deeply. It rattles along with the approaching trolley. When he talks again it’s quiet and close, and she has to strain her ears.
“Professional, eh? You’re not wrong: I can certainly do better. Look, Milogost, it’s very simple. You get into the country on some crackpot vessel, we see you’re an illegal alien, you get escorted out. You’ll be held at the processing facility, your case looked at, and sent on. That’s where I’ll leave you. Just a few hours and you won’t have to put up with me again. If you’d only followed official procedure,” he added, slowly enough to have thought better of it, and persisting anyway, “you might have been alright, eventually. You took your risks.”
“I apologise that I did not follow the official procedure. I did not know it. There is much I did not come to learn until after my arrival.”
“Don’t play dumb with me, mate. You’re sharp as a bin full of razors. I don’t mind telling you, you even had me fooled for a while, but I’ve got your number now.”
“There is no point telephoning my residence in future: I will not be returning,” says Milogost triumphantly, like it’s the easy move that wins him the match.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I would like the beef,” says Pana gleefully when it comes her turn. It’s her escort, Rainbow-fingernails. She’s been watching and thinking about what she’ll order until she knows exactly. Then she changes her mind. “No, sorry, the fish.”
“Are you sure you don’t want both, sweetheart?” Rainbow asks with a wink. “You can have them.”
“Alright,” Pana says, blushing. She accepts both with some embarrassment. Well, good – why not! It will serve her parents right for leaving her alone. They’re hot in her hands, and when she lifts the crackling lids the steam rises and both smell nice, though not like home. She pulls back her hood, rolls up her sleeves, and flakes out a tentative sample of white fish with her plastic fork. In the end, she picks out all the vegetables and chews them thoughtfully. This is a serious occupation, and requires intense concentration.
It’s some time before she pays attention to the voices again. Most people are doing the same as her: chewing, all talk and listening exhausted, watching their screens. The attendant has rolled away with the trolley.
“What do you mean, you don’t want it?” Walden is saying. “What’s the matter with you? Do you want me to do ‘here comes the aeroplane’?”
“I apologise. I understood we are on the aeroplane. I cannot eat this stuff.”
“I thought you’d eat anything. You said you were hungry. Didn’t you say it smelt good?”
“I am so hungry. This is not the food. This is terrible.” Metal jewellery jangles sharp on the plastic tray-tables.
Pana turns her head and peers back at the two men from the gap between the seats. Her mouth is full. She has two meals, and she’s barely picked at them. Perhaps the disappointed man would like one. He sounds so saddened.
Through the rectangular gap between the seats she sees handcuffed wrists. They are in full view above the tray table. Bright circles in the artificial light. She sees a flash of something else, a dark face, a hungry face. They’re still talking: they haven’t seen her. She’s pretty sure they haven’t seen her.
Very slowly, Pana turns back around. She doesn’t say a word.
“Don’t be difficult. I’ll eat yours, then,” Walden is continuing, and there’s sounds of chewing and moving trays, and Pana lets out a sigh of relief. They didn’t see her. No one knows she looked. No one knows she saw a thing.
Rainbow-fingernails knows. That’s why she served Walden, but not the prisoner. And he’s handcuffed. There can’t be long to go until they’re all safely off the flight, now.
Pana abandons her food. She doesn’t feel like eating any more. She stares at the black screen, noting her sticky fingerprint, and out the rain-spattered window. It’s black outside, and distant lights ripple through rain.
They keep talking, but Pana is no longer enjoying eavesdropping on the exchange. They are still talking about airline food and burgers and work, but to her every word takes on a sinister edge, the amusement gone. It could have been interesting, it could have been good. Now it’s disappointing.
“You’re not going to be difficult, are you? We can see what they have at the airport,” concedes Walden. “One last round before the long-haul journey. Before we part ways. We could do that.”
“Come with me? You would perhaps like to?” asks Milogost.
“Home. You will make me leave your fine country? Yes? Very well, this I cannot change. But you will not hold me at a processing facility. I will not rot there. I will go home on my own. We go together, I will arrange it. The loan of your radio I will require kindly. And we will have a good feed before the journey.”
“That’s funny. You’re a funny guy. You’re not going anywhere, mate. Not after all we’ve been through. You’re sticking with me, together like glue, all the way to…”
Pana turns around. She has to see. The silence opens up like a sudden sinkhole in the landscape of awkward words. Are they going to embrace? It would be like two hedgehogs, they will not be able to do it for the prickles.
The blue seat is empty. Milogost is gone.
The cabin lights flicker. Wilfred Walden is staring, slack-jawed, at the suddenly empty seat, and then at Pana, right in her wide eyes.
“Fuck,” he says. He reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out something. It is black and squarish but it doesn’t look like a gun from TV. He definitely holds it like a weapon when he stands up in his seat and scans the cabin in quick, efficient sweeps of his dark stubbled head.
“Fuck,” he says again, and begins to move throughout the flickering cabin.
A drop of water splats on Pana’s tray. Is the air-conditioning leaking too? This plane is a rattling mess. Pana looks up, and sees Milogost on the ceiling.
He’s looking down at her. Which looks bad, because he’s clinging to the ceiling like a lizard with all limbs splayed down to their fingertips, and his head is twisted at an awful angle to be looking straight down.
His mouth is open in a grin, showing his teeth, and a too-long tongue hanging out through sheer force of gravity. That’s where the dripping came from.
The mouth is stretching too wide. It keeps going. His teeth and his tongue are too big for it. Something has to give. Pana can’t look away. She makes herself very small in her seat, quivering, but she doesn’t move more than a quiver, and she can’t take her eyes off the spectacle. Her mouth is dry. She’s a deer in headlights.
No one else is looking up. Where is the second big man? Where is Wilfred Walden?
The lights flicker in the cabin again. This time the plane buzzes and lurches, for a second, as though all the power went out that time. They resume progress. There are little screams rippling throughout the cabin, then stifled, then laughter. It was nothing. But when the lights do come back on, they’re dull and yellow and insufficient.
Milogost is peeling off his face to make room for the expanding mouth and jaw. It’s slow but it’s inexorable, like a rolling viscous fluid. Something had to split, something has to give. He’s doing it like he’s peeling off clothes at the end of a long day. It opens up space for the grin, and frees it to become wider. Underneath the skin is blue, dark blue like a bruise, and sticky-looking.
Pana is watching him in fascination. She’s afraid a bit of it will fall on her, a scrap of skin or flesh, and then she’ll unfreeze and she’ll scream, but it doesn’t. He tugs the skin back like a hood. Slow, ponderous, and trailing a kind of gum with a slithering squelch. She wants to pull up hers, zip her hood all the way up and pull the cords, as if that would help, as if her hands could move. It’s like a show. It’s like that video her friend showed her, the one she knows she shouldn’t have watched.
Someone is shaking her arm. It’s so light and careful it’s some time before Pana responds. She looks down and sees five rainbow fingernails: looks up and sees the bright red and white smile.
“Are you alright, sweetheart?” asks the attendant. “We’re just experiencing some technical issues. It’s really nothing to be concerned about. We’ll be landing in a few moments.”
Pana opens her dry mouth and closes it again. Nothing comes out. The attendant stows her tray table for her and pushes her seat back upright in one brisk movement.
“You just wait there in your seat while everyone else disembarks, sweetheart. I’ll come find you and escort you to the desk. A little birdy told me your granny’s coming to meet you, huh?”
Pana manages a nod.
“Good girl. You’ll have an exciting story for her, huh? I have to go and prepare for landing, now, but you be good. I’ll see you very soon.”
Pana sees her walk away. She’s gone and her mouth still hasn’t moved.
The lights go off again. The plane drops, steadies. The lights return, and in the dim yellow she sees Walden standing tall in the aisle, black stick held low in hand. He’s looking right at her, and up at the ceiling, and back to Pana. His mouth is a thin hard line, his jaw set. He raises a finger to his lips.
That black stuff is starting to drip now, too, and it’s hard not to scream. It’s just a drop. It’s sticky like treacle. It’s in her hair. She watches another rolling slowly down the stowed tray table. She doesn’t dare look up any more. The handcuffs are tinkling like jewels.
Walden is going to take care of everything.
“If you’re still hungry, Milo,” says Walden, “I’ll buy you another burger at the airport. You can have anything you like.” He makes his voice a sing-song. Pana didn’t know he could make his gravelly voice a sing-song.
The lights flicker out. There’s a ripple of screaming. This time it doesn’t stop.