The pilot would not say, cabin crew, be seated for take-off, because there was no cabin crew. There were no passengers either, except for Vita in 28A. Instead of a safety demonstration there was a neatly printed and personalised card pinned to the seat in front of her; a with compliments slip that had the airline logo in the bottom righthand corner. It instructed her to read the safety card stowed in the seat pocket below.
The woman depicted on the laminated safety booklet looked uncannily like Vita, like her own bitmoji. She had the same long, layered hair, the same defined collarbones like quotation marks either side of her head. She was even wearing an identical purple day dress. In some of the squares, this woman had a man-friend and a small person in her care, yet even in the strip where the plane drops from the sky like a tired bird, the woman and the man and the child refuse to look at each other. They don’t exchange a single, meaningful glance in what could be their last moments on earth. Even strangers, Vita thinks, would look at each other. Some would even touch.
Outside, someone unseen was refuelling the plane. The whirring, guzzling noises made her thirsty, and she swivelled around in her seat to look at the kitchenette at the end of the aisle. A single yellow light illuminated the charcoal compartments and their silver handles. On the reverse side of the note pinned to the chair in front of her, Vita noticed an additional instruction: Please help yourself to refreshments but be sure to remain seated during turbulence with your seatbelt fastened. The clasp made a sprightly clack as she secured it low and tight around her hips.
It was dark outside. The sky was only just relinquishing its midnight blanket in favour of the teal cloth of early morning. It was the navy uniform of the red-eye flight. Vita was to head straight to the press conference when she arrived, which would be conducted in individual pods video-linked to Kirribilli House. It wasn’t necessary for her to be in Canberra to attend the briefing; but she wanted to interview some residents in the days following. Her nose detected a bigger story.
Vita rechecked her handbag for antibacterial spray, wipes, gloves, and mask before zipping and placing the bag underneath the seat in front of her. A burst of audio feedback filled the cabin, and then a barking cough came over the sound system.
Apologies. Welcome onboard flight WE398 to Canberra. Our flight time is nine hours and twenty-seven minutes, touching down at two thirty pm local time. The forecast this morning is for thunderstorms and heavy winds the duration of our journey, so we may experience some light turbulence. Please ensure your seat backs are upright and tray tables stowed as we prepare for takeoff.
There was another beat of white noise, like a dash. Oh, apologies again: This is your captain speaking. My name is Max. Vita smiled at this tug of humanity in an otherwise robotic delivery. She was glad for it; it made her feel less alone.
As the plane ascended it rattled and thumped, and reminded her of driving in her hatchback out to interview farmers, terrain like an unshaved face. Wherever the story is, she thinks, she goes. But did the stories always have to be so rough?
The sky was only just relinquishing its midnight blanket in favour of the teal cloth of early morning. It was the navy uniform of the red-eye flight.
After half an hour of thinking and staring out the window at the colour teal—which was so thick as to be like flying through a paint sample from Bunnings—the same white audio noise burst over the speakers, more like exclamation mark than a dash this time.
It’s Vita, isn’t it?
Vita sat up in her seat and pushed her shoulders back, alert.
It’s your captain. It’s Max.
Vita whipped her eyes up and down the aisle and scanned the backs of the seats. There was truly no one else on this flight.
Yes, hi. Hi. I can hear you.
‘How did you know my name?’
Oh, I had to write out your greeting card and put it on the back of seat 27A.
‘They make the pilots do that?’
They do now.
‘Well. Okay.’ Vita picked up the note again and studied the script. ‘You have nice handwriting.’
Max laughed. It was a breathy, meaty laugh, honest. Thank you. Took me years to perfect it.
Silence. The comforting mumble of the plane’s engine; this part of the flight so smooth they could have been parked back at the terminal.
I’m guessing you’re a medical professional? Said Max. A doctor?
‘No actually,’ said Vita, ‘I’m a journalist.’
Right! Right. Wow. Wouldn’t want your job, no offence. Going in one direction when everyone else is going in the other.
Vita laughed. When she laughed, she kind of bounced. She bounced once in her seat. ‘It’s not always, not exactly, like that.’
Of course. Max waited. He thought perhaps she would offer something more, being a storyteller by trade. When she didn’t, he asked her: Do you get scared?
Are you scared now?
‘Yes and no. I try and turn the fear into adrenaline. Focus. It drives me to find a piece that makes the risks worth it.’
There was a thoughtful pause. Has there ever been a time the risks weren’t worth it?
‘Well’, she said, ‘I’m still here, aren’t I?’
I suppose that’s true.
Vita flipped the conversation. ‘And what about you? It’s not like being a pilot is without risks.’
Another chunky laugh. Well, you know what they say, safest way to travel. Feel like a glorified bus driver half the time. And it gets lonely.
‘Yeah’, she said.
Back home, Craig would be asleep, the radio on low because he needed the froth of human voices to relax, to be still, to just be. Vita had tried earplugs, tried playing her own music softly on her side of the bed, had even tried a pillow wall to absorb some of the sound, but finally, defeated, she moved into the spare room a short time before this trip. He needed the radio more than he needed her. She knew all about lonely.
Max seemed to chew his bottom lip. It wasn’t so much that Vita could hear him do it; more that she sensed his apprehension. ‘What is it?’ She asked.
Can I ask you a personal question?
‘Um. Yeah, all right.’
Does—I hope you’re not going to think me creepy; it’s a genuine question.
Does human touch still feel nice?
The plane rumbled as if it was going to belch. As if it too was a hungry animal. Vita noticed they were chasing the sun and the clouds outside had turned the colour of stone-washed jeans.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘I’m not sure anymore.’
Vita noticed they were chasing the sun and the clouds outside had turned the colour of stone-washed jeans.
She thought more about Craig. She pictured his wide, soft hands and his face without edges, like a puddle in which she saw herself reflected, even when she didn’t want to, when she really wanted to see the Craig she married. His wide palms, his warm, moist fingers. Was that human touch?
They didn’t speak for the next few hours. Vita bundled up her jacket and used it as a pillow. As she dozed, the sunlight through the window turned the insides of her eyelids peach. Her dreams were projected on this peach backdrop like vintage Kodak film. In one of her dreams, Craig had flown to meet her at the press briefing; he was doing his photography again. He grinned when he saw her, and that dark freckle that rode his cheekbone like a wave disappeared into his smile lines, all gobbled up. Then his face relaxed and the freckle reappeared. It had the cheeky behaviour of a garden mole.
In the dream she could tell that Craig was younger; he had that brightness about him. He whispered something but she only caught the phrase sycophantic megalomaniacs. This Craig was all shapes and solid mass and no blurred edges. Not even the dream-blur kind.
Then the dream changed and the time was different. They were back at that scene, the one they would never fully leave. Vita was holding her phone towards the mouth of a first responder: a woman, old and in shock. She had been sitting in the park and saw the whole thing happen. Her wet eyes grew large at the enormity of it all. When Vita played the tape back later, she realised all the woman had really said was those babies, those babies. Craig had fallen away, and when Vita went looking she found him sitting on the kerb with his head in his hands. A dad like that, he said.
Vita lurched awake. The light turbulence settled quickly; the plane was doing her a favour, rousing her. She stretched, rose, and went to find something to eat.
Nothing was labelled in the kitchenette, as if it should be obvious that the mini bottles of chardonnay were stored in the bottom left compartment, and the petite, wrapped meals in the middle two drawers. That was something she liked about things on planes: their tininess. It was as if being so high up made you a god by default, and you swelled to god-size, so that ordinary human things became teeny, diminutive in your changed, divine hands. If only all human things could feel that way.
It was as if being so high up made you a god by default, so that ordinary human things became diminutive in your changed, divine hands. If only all human things could feel that way.
Vita slid a hot parcel labelled vegetable curry from its drawer. The white noise burped through the speakers again—an asterisk, or maybe parenthesis—and Max’s voice was above her.
Don’t eat that.
She looked up. A tiny camera winked at her, cheekily, like Craig’s hat-in-a-box freckle.
It’s awful. I’d go the chilli con carne instead.
Vita exchanged the curry for the chilli and fossicked around for cutlery.
Top right. No, not that one. Yep, that one.
‘Thanks’, said Vita.
Back at her seat Vita let the tray table down and aligned her miniature accoutrements in her preferred order. Which was, from left to right: napkin, pepper and salt sachets, bread bun and a dainty square of butter, apple, wine glass and bottle. The main meal fit snugly in the space she had left in the middle.
After this great ceremony, Vita unwrapped the chilli.
‘Jesus,’ she said. ‘Looks like dog food.’
Max laughed. Tastes like it too. Best of a bad bunch I’m afraid.
‘Hey’—Vita spoke with her mouth full, sloppily chewing; it didn’t seem rude in this scenario—‘why did you ask me that before, about human touch?’
There was no immediate response, and Vita began to think Max hadn’t heard, when eventually a long, heavy sigh filled the fuselage.
I’m sorry, he said. It was a weird thing to ask. It’s just—I just never thought I would live in a world like this.
The press conference, the residents, those antibacterial wipes and gloves and sprays sprang to Vita’s mind. A huge purple cloud like a whale swam past the window. Vita nodded. ‘Yeah, me neither.’
Hey, said Max, with manufactured joviality, is this the weirdest flight you’ve ever been on, talking to the pilot over the PA system?
A spoonful of chilli made a glop sound as it fell from Vita’s fork halfway to her mouth. It was one of the most unappetising sounds she’d ever heard. Screwing up her nose, Vita wrapped her cutlery and sachets in the napkin and tucked everything in the dish, resealing the foil.
‘No. I think the weirdest flight I’ve ever been on was when I was sat next to a hawk.’
Max released an explosive laugh which made Vita laugh in turn.
I wonder where that hawk was going, said Max.
‘I don’t know,’ said Vita, ‘but obviously it thought flying was quicker than… flying.’
They both laughed together, and there was friendliness and warmth in the cabin. A camaraderie.
Vita thought this might be the single most intimate experience of her life.
They both laughed together, and there was friendliness and warmth in the cabin. Vita thought this might be the single most intimate experience of her life.
The oval windows revealed a bright and snowy landscape complete with mountains and valleys. It really looked like the clouds would catch them should they fall. Craig could use a cloud-land like this one, Vita thought. Someplace soft underfoot; soft and forgiving. The kind of ground that says It’s okay, I’m here.
After a seemingly interminable silence, Vita ventured a suggestion.
‘Max, why don’t I come sit with you, instead of us talking over the PA like this? I could be your dangerously underqualified co-pilot.’
The white sparkle heralded his reply. All right, yes. That would be nice. I’ll unlock the cockpit door. Just let yourself in.
Vita went to the kitchenette and disposed of the remains of her dinner. She went to the bathroom and brushed her hair and her teeth. Isn’t it funny, she thought idly, how you wash your hair but brush your teeth? She took hold of her handbag and checked again for the mask, gloves, wipes and spray, but couldn’t bring herself to put any of them on. It didn’t seem right.
At the cockpit door, Vita knocked. It felt like she was entering someone’s bedroom. She wondered momentarily what Craig would think of this, but shook her head to dislodge the thought from her mind.
Come in, called Max.
Vita opened the door and stepped through. There were two high-backed seats before a blazing array of dials and buttons and panels that all looked equally important and untouchable. She placed her bag down by the door and wiped her hands on her dress. She could not see the back of Max’s head resting on his seat. He must be very short.
Vita stepped to the left and approached the co-pilot’s station. She sat down, and then she looked at Max.
Her hand rose involuntarily to her mouth and covered it. She stared.
Max was a dog. A golden labrador.
His headpiece, into which he had spoken to Vita and out of which Vita’s voice had flowed, was attached to a smart black leather collar. From the collar dangled a silver tag that read Guide Dogs Australia.
Hey, said Max. Not what you expected?
Vita’s hand floated down to the armrest. She forced herself to close her mouth that felt like it had been wedged open with a piece of wood. Swivelling to face forwards, towards the wide blue plains of sky, she cleared her throat.
‘I’m sorry. That was rude.’
It’s fine, Max shrugged. Then, after a beat: My mother was a bitch.
And Vita found herself laughing again, really laughing, harder than she had in the longest time.
So hard that tears sprang into the corners of her eyes.
‘Oh my god,’ she gasped. ‘Oh my fucking god.’
Max gave a wide, open-mouthed smile, a grin so huge she could see his tongue. It reminded her of Craig’s smile. Max’s eyes reminded her of Craig’s eyes. Max’s fur, Craig’s hair. They were similar in many ways.
From this vantage point they could see the sun. They were again above a storm, the clouds kissed by gold from above and bruised to lilac underneath. Vita had the peculiar pleasure of seeing lightning from above. Light, she thought, from the Latin root lev, meaning not heavy. That was how she felt.
They coasted, sometimes talking, sometimes not. An easiness bloomed between them. Before Max prepared the plane for landing, he turned his baleful eyes on Vita and asked if he could press her for a favour.
‘Sure,’ she replied,‘what is it?’
Vita smiled, understanding. ‘No problems.’
She reached out her hand and placed it, ungloved, gently on Max’s brow. An incredible weightlessness engulfed him, a kind of euphoria. Vita didn’t know this, but it was Max’s theory that the bits you cannot see yourself are more sensitive to touch. He was convinced his heart lay not in his breast, but in a pocket just behind his eyes and below his brain, snug like Vita’s chilli on her artfully arranged tray.
That’s nice, said Max. Thanks.
An earlier version of this story was shortlisted for the 2020 Peter Carey Short Story Award.