Trapped Inside a Large Metal Object Flying For Ten Hours

There is a turbaned Indian man sitting on the aisle seat of my three seater row. He is as big as a house (bigger than some, I suspect). Both of us were praying (each in our own way) that no unfortunate soul would take the seat between us. As the last of the passengers strolled in, took their places and the plane began its taxi to the runway, we both breathed a sigh of relief. He immediately raised the arm rest to his right and let out a grateful breath of air as a good part of him oozed into the vacant space that separated us from each other’s sordid flesh. Then taking off his shoes, he crossed his legs and gave me the benefit of his smelly socks. What the Lord giveth, the Devil taketh back. (As I write this he lets out a rather thunderous fart. Such is life, I say to myself.)

We are in an older plane, a Boeing 747. No video screens built into the back of the seats as with the newer models. Fair enough. I wasn’t going to watch a film anyway. Whatever they’d show would be unwatchable both because of their choice of titles and because the airplane is not a conducive environment for focusing on anything worth seeing. So fuck ‘em, I say. Let them keep their King Kongs, which I wouldn’t have paid a nickel to see anyway.

I note that a little rounded label pasted on the retractable tray before me says, ‘Welcome to United Economy Plus’. Economy plus what? The seats are just as crunched as the economy sans plus section. Perhaps they serve free booze to us plusers. Up until recently all international flights had free liquor for all classes. United, in its meanness, recently began to charge for alcoholic drinks to economy passengers. So perhaps the plus here means economy plus booze. Fat chance.

We are presently waiting our turn to take off as two planes fly perilously close, crossing over us to land. The runway is situated along the SF Bay and there’s a lovely view of the turquoise water and the hills beyond as the engines rev up and start to roar and we race down the tarmac, the elderly fuselage shaking and shimmering as we thunder forward. And then, suddenly, we’re airborne. I’ve never truly understood how they get such a lumbering hunk of steel to fly. You just have to believe in the impossible, I guess.

It’s a relatively clear day without the fog of the past week shrouding the sun. As we bank eastwards over the bay, we get a grand view of the peninsula. The Golden Gate bridge plays peek-a-boo with little puffs of clouds hovering just below us. From this vantage point you get a good sense of the densely populated ribbon by the coast. But it’s just a band of urbanity huddled by the water’s edge. Within minutes we’re flying over the coastal range and then the houses become simply random clusters and then even the clusters peter out as the landscape becomes more rugged.

Flying northeast along the Sacramento River, once the mountains are crossed, the land is neatly parcelled into rigid geometric shapes – all squares and rectangles except where a snake-like highway or tributary intervenes. But very soon the earth becomes rocky again as the gentle foothills erupt into coniferred mountains.

The fat man in the next seat hands me his passport and landing card, making a motion which I interpret as asking me to fill it out for him. I see from his details that he’s 48 years old and lives in Delhi. He’s visiting someone near Heathrow, he says in halting English when I ask for his UK address so I can write it on the form. I do remember that there is a large Sikh community living in the vicinity of the airport. Some months ago there was a forceful industrial action lead by mainly Sikh workers against the concession that caters the in-flight meals – Gate Gourmet, the very company I noticed loading up the plane we’re flying on.

Well, ‘economy plus’ is emphatically not plus liquor. The elderly stewardess with bright red nails just smiled sympathetically when I asked. So I ordered tomato juice and pretended there was vodka inside. Probably better for me. Though drinking a shot or two of liquor on a plane often helps me sleep. But I don’t need sleep so much that I’d pay a fiver for something I got for nothing last time I flew.

The fat man struggled to his feet and tried standing to take the weight off his bum. He appears to be very uncomfortable whether he’s sitting or standing. It must be a pain to cart all that weight around. I wonder how far we’d have to go skyward before he weighed less?

Now that the film has started they’ve asked passengers in window seats to close the shades so the light wouldn’t affect the clarity of view. I’d rather look outside. It’s hard enough being cooped up in this flying metal cigar without being able to see the ground. But the crew are usually very fussy about their orders. So I suspect, as the sole miscreant (all the other shades are now down) I will be brought to task and ordered to lower mine as well. The outside world will thus disappear from view and I will be left to my fantasies.

My last look – barren mountains below brushed with traces of snow, grey, granite and every once in a while a patch of motley green. Clouds are thickening up a bit so we can only see when there’s a break in the fluff.

The woman occupying the seat in front of me has become troublesome. First she pushed her seat backwards (which, of course, was her prerogative) forcing my legs into an uncomfortable position and then her pillow which had worked its way through the crack between her seat and the wall kept falling into my space. I would then be obliged to push it back and each time her disembodied hand would grab the edge and pull it toward her as if it were some strange, tedious game the two of us were playing.

The food finally arrived. I wish it hadn’t. The choice (some choice!) was chicken curry or pasta. I chose pasta since I don’t trust airplane chicken. But the pasta – some muck filled with curdled cheese – was truly, madly awful! The chicken couldn’t have been worse – but, then again, it might have been.

I had to wait what seemed like an eternity for the stewardess to pick up the left-over dreck so I could extract myself from my seat-buckled prison in order to take a piss. I then had to convince the fat man, through significant gestures, to get up so I could get through. This he did reluctantly and with some effort.

I managed, after relieving myself, to find another pen in my bag which I had stored in the overhead compartment. Before that I was weaponless as first my pencil and then my pen went dry – one after the other. It was frustrating and I almost opened my computer – something I’d prefer not to do since it is such a crush here – but thought twice about it as I just couldn’t abide the irony of using high tech to save myself from a low tech breakdown.

The weather outside has shifted to breezy mists. We’ve hit the prairies – it’s very flat with the land broken up into geometric parcels.

They still haven’t forced me to close my little porthole though I expect they’ll do so soon since they’ve just turned the cabin lights out. We’re gliding through mist that shrouds the ground below. I’m beginning to grow sleepy but my stomach hurts and I have a bad taste in my mouth from the dire cuisine.

On newer planes they now have tracking programs you can tune into and see on your rear seat monitor. It’s actually the only thing about the airplane media system I liked. This plane doesn’t. And I regret it as I stare down at the patchwork quilt of land below and wonder where we are.

The stray clouds project their shadows onto the ground. It’s the only thing that gives the prairie view dimension. Patches of land are green, light, dark and shades in between. Some are brown, grey and russet.

Suddenly we reached a point of demarcation – a border after which the land reverts to untrammelled forest. I suspect, therefore, we’re quite far north.

Images start appearing in my head from my trip. I had gone back to my old neighbourhood where I’d lived twenty-five years before.

I ‘m getting off the streetcar at 22nd and Church where the tracks emerge from Dolores Park. Across there is a shop with a sign that reads, ‘Ming House Cleaners.’ I thought it was a business that cleaned houses until I passed by and saw it was a laundry. Midway down the street is a single family home flying the American flag. What’s so unusual is that they’re the only one. No other city in the US flies less flags, I suspect. A guy walking on the other side of the street (fortunately) is screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs. A bit further on is a house with a mural covering the façade depicting a jungle with viney trees and animals nestled in the branches. The more you stare, the more you see little hidden creatures. Very wild and exotic, but I’m not sure I’d want to live there.

It’s midnight London time. I did doze off for a few seconds, but I’m still alert. Seven hours left. Means we’ve only been airborne for two and a half hours. But already it seems like an eternity next to smelly socks.

I close my eyes and imagine my walk again. I’ve reached 24th Street. Turned right. Passed Happy Donuts ‘open 24 hours’ where all the druggies used to hang out to satisfy their sugar cravings. Next door is Shufat Market – a Palestinian grocer from Ramala (where all the other Palestinian grocers are from). He used to have a picture of a young woman who became a PLO martyr on the wall above the cash register. Wonder if he still does.

Further on is Phoenix Books – Buy, Sell, Trade. The window display is of pop-culture curiosities from twenty years ago – books that are fun to look at but who’d want to read them?

The adjacent Sushi bar is open once more. Last time I was here it had closed. A sign on the window was put up as a memorial to the former owners who would be ‘sorely missed’. I never ate there.

Martha’s Coffee has benches out front for people to sit and chat over their brew which my brother used to say was the best in town until he discovered Blue Bottle. One shop further is Holey Bagel. Loved it when it came. Tired of it fast.

Open my eyes again and peer out the window. Very few signs of life down under. Just a single road. The ground is colourless – sort of a greyish slate. At this point we could be flying over the face of the moon.

The big screen some rows up is displaying images of an action thriller. Soundless, plotless, it just seems to be pixilated patterns to me when I squint my eyes - something to occupy the neurons of one’s brain, if one has any brain left. Decide to go back to the movie in my head.

Across from Holey Bagel is Tuggey’s Hardware – ‘Paint mixed, keys made, glass cut.’ The ‘Tuggey’ sign is written over the cut out of a saw. For eons there used to be a full size silly-looking dummy of Tuggey in the window. Still there, I’m pleased to say. When I lived here I would, on occasion, go to Tuggeys for a tool and Tuggey (or his son) would say, ‘Do you really need it? It’s so expensive.’ And when I said that, yes, I really needed it, they’d lend it to me and tell me to bring it back when I was done.

Next to Tuggey’s is the Cheese Co. – one of the originals. There were always luscious wheels of cheese in the window. But I could never afford their prices, so I just settled for yucky Monterey Jack at Bell Super.

On the ground amoeboid pools of water dot the surface. The colour is a murky brown. Where are we? Maybe it’s better not to know. I think at this point the sky is more interesting than the earth. It’s a soft baby blue in contrast to the lower desolation.

St. Clair Liquors on the other side of Sanchez was once owned by one of the old 49er football stars. We used to avoid it except when it was the only show in town. It’s now run by a Middle Eastern gentleman (I assume from his speech and appearance). I ended up getting a bottle of overpriced Californian Chenin Blanc.

I’m seated just behind the plane’s right wing. The 747 has four jets on each side The wing extends out some 20 metres, I’d guess. It’s a metallic grey except for the very tip which is painted in four stripes, contrasting shades of blue, dark at the bottom and getting progressively lighter till it fades out.

Now if they asked me to close the porthole shade it wouldn’t really matter. Moonscapes get boring very fast.

The only street-wise blacks you see on 24th are trying to hustle money from the free-spending shoppers who are prime for tapping their liberal guilt (or gelt).

The seatbelt sign has just flashed on. I suppose we’re in for a bounce. The sky has turned even greyer and the clouds are thickening.

The big screen finally shows the map I’ve been wishing for. We’ve travelled 2600 km and we’re half way through Winipeg headed for Hudson Bay. But below the mist is so thick you can’t see anything except the swirling fog.

Bell Market – used to shop there every other day. Now it’s owned by Kroger’s, I understand – the market my folks used to shop at back in Ohio when I was a kid. A beggar had stationed himself by the entrance. He was dressed in a top hat and a tattered coat. His face was sunken, his eyes bleary and his moustache drooped. But he took the time to wish me a good day, which I appreciated.

Happily, the stewardi are leaving me pretty much alone. Nowadays they come in all shapes and sizes (and sexes). Gone are the days when it was a glamorous occupation that demanded beautiful bodies. It used to be one of the selling points – airlines competed with each other to dress their young staff like Barbie dolls. They were over the hill at forty back then. Now it seems to be the average age – at least on this plane.

Herbs – the grungiest café on the block – is still around. How it survived all these years (it was there in 1972 when I first came to the area) is anyone’s guess. There’s a hand-written sign in the window: ‘Help wanted. Wait Person. Apply Within.’ It’s only open from 7-4. Maybe it’s the 7AM opening that saved it. But Starbucks, next door, opens at 5:30 in the morning!

I thought it would start to get dark by now. But as this is mid-summer and we’re so far north, it probably won’t get dark at all.

Twin Peaks Property – a very weird place. Sign in window: ‘Free. Free. Free. To Celebrate 4th of July a free flag (American) will be given to any Happy Valley Merchant, provided the flag is displayed in your store window. Let’s try and break the record of last year when four (4) flags were given away. For the information of you illegal aliens, the 4th of July is the birthday of this great country.’ Below is drawn a happy face. The interesting thing about this nutty realty company is that they had the reputation of being honest and straightforward with their clients – charging reasonable rents for the property they owned and being good, decent landlords. The more ‘liberal’ realtors who quite rightly refused the flag the Twin Peaks property guy offered, were gougers of the worst sort who wouldn’t blink at evicting pregnant mothers if it would get them a few extra bucks.

Someone just asked me for the blanket that was on the empty seat between me and the fat man who was feigning sleep. I handed it to him but now I wonder if I wasn’t being rash to have given it away as my legs are starting to feel chilly.

Back at Martha’s for a coffee – a small cap. Needed the shot. Sitting outside on the wooden bench, I noticed the guy across from me was packing up his laptop because it looked like rain. “Summer is winter in San Francisco,” the clerk at St Clair’s had said as he bagged my purchase, twisting Mark Twain’s quote into such a pretzel that Twain himself would have tossed it back into the muddy Mississippi.

The tail wind is 52 mph which is why the pilot said we’ll probably arrive early.

The seatbelt sign has been switched off. I guess it had been switched on as a precaution because we really didn’t hit any roughness.

The fat man is still snoring away, unconscious of his cumbersome presence. Perhaps he is dreaming of being young and svelte again (if he ever was). I wonder how he keeps his turban from falling off when his head is bent in such a precarious position?

I once thought of doing a yearly photo of 24th Street – maybe on January 1st – because the neighbourhood was changing so rapidly. I thought it would be like one of those stop-action shots where you show the composite (like of a flower coming into bloom). Except it wasn’t changing in that way, it was evolving more like a patchwork quilt. The quilt has become so chaotic now that it’s sometimes hard to see it as a quilt anymore. It only comes back into focus when I juxtapose it with my memories. I am a camera - but one that morphs images, sometimes out of all recognition.

The pilot said it would be 24 C and clear in London. Near perfect weather for my return. Much nicer, in fact, than the lousy weather we had most days in SF.

An image flashes into my mind. On Market Street a vendor, a Chilean woman in ethnic dress, has set up a table selling traditional costumes from her homeland and, on the side, rather curiously, some run-of-the-mill finger puppets. She is trying to call someone on her cell-phone but finds the technology difficult, staring down uncomprehendingly at the tiny buttons on the strange little gadget that will send her voice around the world while she shivers outside attempting to hawk her apparel to busy office workers who really could care less (though some do stop to admire the little finger-puppets).

It’s 1AM London time – 6 hours left. Distance – 3326 miles. Altitude – 35,000 feet. We’re flying across Hudson Bay.

I had purchased a NY Times at the terminal before boarding. Just now picked it up. Article on front page hit my eye about a 66 year old doctor, an immigrant from Romania, who blew himself up in his posh E. 62nd St. house rather than sell it to pay off a divorce settlement. He did such a good job of setting off a gas explosion that the building collapsed into dust, leaving the neighbouring structures in tact.

Hit another rough patch. This time seat belts are needed. Below an archipelago appears. The land a light clay, the water a frigid blue. All is barren – at least as seen from above.

My aunt Helen, who was visiting from Ohio, had wanted to take Sherry out for a meal to show her appreciation for all the kindness Sherry had shown to Mom. We decided to trundle down to Washington Square Bar and Grill in North Beach, a haunt I had never actually eaten at but one I knew well. It’s an established bistro overlooking the park with the feel of casual formality (the waiters wear bow ties, the customers wear jeans). Even though the waiters at first appear a bit intimidating, unlike their French counterparts they’re actually puppies – relaxed enough to joke around, professional enough to know when to bring the soup and when to bring the pudding. The food was the best I’ve eaten since coming back to SF. Simple, fresh and well prepared. Pricey, too. It cost Helen a couple of rabbit ears

2AM. Halfway there. Below, grey barren terrain. Rugged mountains with peaks of snow.

The other good meal I had was also in North Beach – the day I met Bill down by the Embarcadero. It was Monday, July 3rd and he, along with half the city, only worked till noon – others had the entire day off making a four day holiday, but for people like Bill – a journalist at a business magazine - the holiday was broken.

Wispy mist below drifting like lacy gossamer quickly transformed to thickening gloom. They came around with snacks – cheese and crackers. But the cheese was cheddar with a deep orange dye. Why do that? I ordered some fizzy water hoping the bubbles would help neutralise the acid churned up from all the fake food they’ve fed us.

I talked Bill into getting a sandwich at Molinari’s Deli on Columbus. By the time we got there the lunch crowd had set in so we had to pull a number and wait our turn.

The map has appeared on the overhead screen again. We’ve hit the Atlantic on our way to Godthab, Greenland. Four hours to landing. 2342 miles to London. Flying at 36,000 feet. It’s 2:40AM

The way it works at Molinari’s - you choose the kind of roll you want from a bin that holds lots of different kinds of breads and then, when your number is called, you hand it to one of the guys behind the counter who fixes up a sandwich from a variety of ingredients displayed hungrily in the display case. Each of the guys behind the counter is a character. It used to be all Italians but nowadays it’s hard to tell – except for one old timer who reminded us both of a notorious Chinatown waiter named Edsel Fong. Fong was noted for insulting any customer who dared to sit at one of the tables in his domain. He died a few years back. The old guy serving us could have been his reincarnation as an Italian.

It’s getting somewhat dark, the sky is a muted purple.

We got the North Beach special – mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes, roasted peppers and pesto. Then we took our meal to Washington Square park, found a bench and feasted. I think it was the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten. Absolutely worth all the insults. (At Sam Wo’s where Edsel Fong held court, the food was terrible but cheap which is better than terrible and expensive. At Molinari’s the food is great but somewhat expensive. Insults are cheap, but if the food is good and you’re willing to pay the price, it’s better than any combination of terrible.)

The plane actually seems to be going slower. When they flashed up the map again it didn’t seem like we moved an inch.) It’s 3:04PM. 3hrs and 40 minutes left to go. Will I make it?

This has unwittingly tuned into something of a writing marathon. I’ve been scribbling for over five hours. Wonder how much long I can go on.
Thought back to the day I spent with my brother at Golden Gate Fields. The racetrack sits uncomfortably next to a nature preserve on one side and the multilane highway on the other. Seems strange that it was built to face the choking traffic rather than the serenity of the blue lagoon, but I suspect the people who designed this space knew it didn’t matter. You don’t come here for the view, you come to play the horses.

According to the map we’re flying along the southern coast of Greenland. It’s 3:20 AM.

There weren’t any races that day, just betting on events at other tracks which were being shown on close-circuit TV. Guys staring up at flickering screens urging the image of a horse and calling out the numbers: ‘Come on 3! Go 6!’ Some people shout, others are stoic. The atmosphere inside is stuffy. Low ceilings, not much circulation of air. Outside the grounds of the racing oval are well kept – manicured hedges, little lakes, colourful flower arrangements spelling out the letters ‘GGF’. But without live horses, the stands are ghostly; all the action is in the betting rooms. The only punters who go outside are those who want to smoke. Who comes here? Workers, every-day Joes, retired folk who still hope to tap into Gideon’s rainbow. The preponderance are Chinese and Afro-Americans but there’s a scattering of everyone else. Even kids – though not many. And women are few. Most are older. The one young woman I saw looked a girl who lost her pony.

Below, through the semi-darkness, I can see the snow-capped mountains of Greenland. And now, flying over the costal waters, icebergs dotting the sea like frozen blobs of ivory.

The betting rooms are bare with few embellishments, mostly lino and vinyl. But this downmarket approach is purposefully minimal so as not to detract from the business at hand – no fluff to offend the punters or detract from concentration. Just long plastic tables, simple chairs and florescent strip lighting overhead. Rows of automated tote machines are set against the wall. Overhead a series of TV monitors are built into the brown panelling. Mexican sweepers in unformed caps and white pullovers, periodically brush up the tote slips that fagged-out betters have tossed, thrown or simply dumped onto the ground.

We’re either flying lower or the mountains have become dramatically higher. If you reached down, you could almost touch the snow on the jagged peaks. We are in the land of the midnight sun except there is no sun. But a brilliant full moon is lighting up the night with a phosphorescent glow. It glistens triumphantly over our wing. What a spectacular sight after hours of mundane tedium!

Looking at the punters as a group, they seem to blend into one another. They’re lost in the mass, without features or personality. But there are probably as many Damon Runyon stories here as in 20s Chicago. You’d have to be there for a while – maybe even a regular – before you could pick up on them though. I noticed one man who stood out. An older guy. Tallish. Mane of flaxen white cascading down his neck to his shoulders. His eyes are tired, jaded; he looks seedy – not like a tramp but an artist or writer. He has long thin fingers – delicate hands. But his movements are slightly nervous. He never smiles. He just makes his bets and sits, watching the horses without emotion and then wads up his slips and lets them fall to the floor noticing not at all as they are swept up by the ubiquitous Mexicans.
It’s 3:50AM and finally become too dark to see the ground. I’m starting to get writer’s cramp.

4:15 AM. The sky has lightened up again. Below a sea of clouds, rolling, undulating like steam from a giant, boiling kettle. Now just cumulous puff balls, like we’re flying over cotton.

On the big screen a new movie has started to show. It’s a boxing film. Most of the passengers seem to be ignoring it as the hour is late – or early depending on which way you’re facing.

She wanted to make her mark, my mother. She told me so. She thought she’d accomplish great things. Don’t you want that, too? she asked me. The problem is, I don’t know what great things are anymore.

4:50AM Two men smashing each other up on the giant screen above our heads. What a way to start the morning.

It’s brightening up. There are two layers of clouds – lacy gossamer above, cumulus below. Through the gaps I can see the brackish water. And the sky has a hint – just a hint – of golden glow.

I enjoyed my day in Berkeley, my free ride on BART for Clean Air Day. The campus was no longer familiar but I took pleasure basking in the sun.

Suddenly the cabin lights go on! Wake up all you sleepy heads! Where do you think you are? It’s 5AM! Just an hour and a half left to go on the SF to London run.

The People’s Republic of Berkeley survives in force. Telegraph avenue still is full of tables selling sloganeering t-shirts and bumper stickers opposing Bush, the war and everything else. Had coffee at the Strada – which used to be the Roma. Always the cheapest and best espresso drinks in town. Now run by Latinos instead of Italians. Berkeley still mellow in the sun while SF shivers in fog.

The gossamer has a pinkish hue. Like rushing waters it flows past us on its way to heaven.

A young man with a boyish face sitting opposite me at the Strada is working on his apple laptop. He’s wearing a turquoise t-shirt that says ‘Kazakhstan’. He looks like he might come from there as well. A young woman on the other side of the patio is also working on a white apple laptop and talking, at the same time, on her cell phone – having a café conversation with an unseen friend. Maybe the person she’s chatting to is at a different café and has a portable open as well. What a weird combo of real and cyber time.

5:15AM. The final food service. Food? Service? After all, this is economy class. (Who says the class system is dead?) The food is as expected. An egg, cheese and ham sandwich. I ditch the ham but, even so, the taste lingers. A cup of stale fruit – a very sad melange of tired melon and even tireder grape. Some ‘glacier’ water and orange juice.

Another woman sits down next to the guy from Kazakhstan. She also has a white apple portable. And a cell phone. Sitting behind them I see two others also with the same white laptops. Have they become fashion items? How far is Berkeley from Kazakhstan? Or vice-versa?

5:30AM. The sky is once more a powder blue as it was at the beginning of the flight. Only one hour left. The film as well is almost over. The stewardi look harried and fatigued with wilting hairdos. Everyone will be relieved when the journey is done – my stomach included.

Why doesn’t my new shirt have a pocket? What the hell am I supposed to do with my pen? I was wearing my most comfortable shirt this morning but had to change at the airport after drenching it with coffee. Pulled my new shirt out of the suitcase when I went to the loo and it was only then that I discovered it was pocketless. But it was too late to change again.

The clouds below have thickened. The upper layer of mist has lifted.

5:45. We’ve reached an ice lake in the sky – at least it looks that way. The ripples reflect the sun’s rays making it glisten.

The fat man next to me points to my wrist. I assume he wants to see the time. I stick out my arm and he grabs it in his clammy hand and twists to better see the hour.

My mother wanted respect. She struggled for it. But she never knew what she had and when she had it.

The film has ended. The fight is nearing its climax. It’s 5:54.

6:00. Made my final toilet call. The map overhead now shows us gliding over the Irish Sea closing in on Manchester. Below the rolling layer of mist precludes any view of the ground.

We should very shortly start our descent.

Estimated time of arrival: 6:37. Distance travelled: 5239 miles. Altitude: 10,972 metres.

The fat man is a giant. As he walks back from the loo, I notice how he towers over everyone.

Time is 6:10. Everybody getting antsy anticipating our arrival.

I can finally see the ground through a hole in the cloud cover. It’s still very hazy but the patchwork fields have come into view. It’s a jumble of disorganised shapes compared to the simple, cookie-cut geometry of America. I think I prefer the disorganisation.

Distance to destination: 164 miles. Still flying at 36,000 feet.

The overhead speakers have issued the first announcement asking passengers to arrange their belongings prior to landing. They’re also starting a video about Heathrow – where to go to collect baggage and to get to other terminals. Those of us who know Heathrow laugh at the joke. Those that don’t take notes.

The plane is starting its descent. It banks, turning to the east. The drop is steep. I can feel it in my stomach.

The ground is perfectly clear. The seatbelt signs have come on. The captain says we’ll land in about 15 minutes. The temperature in London is 12C, he says.

The tannoy asks us to shut down our laptops. Below, the fields are multihued. They go on and on as far as the eye can see. Are each of those patches individually owned? One person per patch would be quite a few.

Down, down, down we go. It’s 6:26. We should almost be over London. Starting to see suburban industry. Still mainly rural though.

The urbanisation is gradual. More subdivisions, more houses, more roads. We’re coming into London airspace. The plane banks sharply right.

The tannoy announces preparations for landing. Seats in upright position, the voice commands.

The highway below is thick with traffic.

We bank to the left over the outskirts of London. I see a football stadium (which one?) All the houses look like orange topped clones.

Down, down, down.

I see the Thames and the Millennium Wheel – the London Eye, the Erectile Gerkin, Hyde Park. What a view! It’s so dramatic and so hard to take it all in.

The Thames looks muddier from above. We’re circling back over the river by Vauxhall Bridge. And now we cross it again.

We’re so low I can make out the shape of individual cars.

We’ve reached the runway. We’ve landed with a bump. The wing flaps are up, slowing us down.

Now taxing to the terminal. It’s 6:45AM


11 July 2006