As I sit next to my son on a nearly empty Easyjet flight to Malta, faced with a mandatory 14-day quarantine as soon as we land, my mind is on fighter planes and other things that haven’t happened yet.
I have to admit that as much as I hate getting on commercial airliners, over the years I have become addicted to the buzz you get from deciding to hop on a last-minute flight to an unknown or exotic destination. Some people love to plan their travels months or years in advance . For me, it’s all about the feeling of freedom one gets at being able to just pick up and go to a place you have never been, and maybe even know little about. Possibly in part, because it’s a freedom afforded me less often these days due to having a family, house, financial commitments…a cat. So when in the past the chance to dash off somewhere has presented itself I’ve jumped at it.
But this time, as I sit on a plane making its way from Gatwick in the early hours of the morning to Malta, it’s not anticipation I’m feeling. Though it’s not exactly dread either. I can’t say what the feeling is exactly because it hasn’t caught up with me yet.
I remember as a child my dad would take us out to airshows. This was long before anyone had any real sense of global warming or impending environmental catastrophe. Long before the notion of health and safety at such public events would outweigh the thrill and exhilaration of watching fighter planes screech past just a few hundred feet above our heads. Long before we could have imagined we would someday watch jumbo jets collide with office towers in downtown New York. A time when the idea of a pandemic was the stuff of cheesy Saturday matinees.
Our biggest fears back then revolved around The Russians and the existential threat of nuclear annihilation and the aircraft we were watching were the cold war beasts of war, built for power, size but most of all speed. They were aircraft with names like Phantom, Voodoo, Starfighter. Possibly more than any I was transfixed by the needle-nosed Starfighters, or ‘flying coffins’, as they were often dubbed. If they were a car Ralph Nader surely would have labelled them ‘unsafe at any speed or altitude’. Insanely fast, notoriously dangerous to fly.
In the sweltering August heat, thousands of people would crowd onto the jet-black tarmac, reclining against their car windscreens or sitting back in lawn chairs, staring up a the clear blue skies as these machines of war thundered past.
I say ‘thundered’, but actually, they were eerily quiet. Travelling at near super-sonic speeds the aircraft approached without a sound. The jets would silently - almost laconically - drift past. For a moment they would hang weightless in the air before us, and then, dozens of meters behind them their sound would crash in like an earthquake. It was if the noise was scrambling to keep up, all the more furious and angry when it finally arrived.
I guess that is how I’m feeling about where we are now, looking over at a sleeping woman in a now-ubiquitous surgical mask, and listening to a group of flight attendants chat about their uncertain futures while picking through the last of the onboard snacks to find something for lunch. I am aware that there is an ear-splitting wave about to hit us all, and yet here we are in the silence, caught for a moment in time 20 thousand feet somewhere above Spain, a country already rapidly descending into full lock-down. All around us events are unfolding faster than our minds have to process them.
We are told numbers of existing infections, about death counts. In a sense, they still feel low enough to make one question what the bother is about. In the UK there are still less than a hundred. But we know these numbers are deceptive. The true numbers far greater, with hundreds of thousands probably already infected. We are preparing to experience something that has already happened, that has already arrived and is amongst us yet, we just haven’t seen or heard the evidence yet.
So as I sit with 24 others on one of the last planes into Malta, I’m aware I’m possibly stealthily infecting others without even knowing it. Or they are infecting me. I won’t know for days, maybe I will never know.
The cabin crew are now preparing us few stragglers to land. They won’t be disembarking with us. Instead, the plane will head back to the UK, and towards uncertain futures. They are no doubt wondering if they will soon even have jobs to go to.
Neither Sasha or I have been to Malta before, and we are both tired and irritable, having been up late into the previous evening frantically packing up whatever we thought we would need to spend an indefinite amount of time in a country small enough to walk across in a day. When Margot came over, the coronavirus was just a murmuring far off in a city in China I’d never heard of. A tiny spec on the horizon. But like those Starfighters, it has approached faster than we could ever have predicted.
I worried about being stuck in quarantine indefinitely, I’m worried about my friends and family back home. I’m worried about the UK and its stubborn refusal to panic, even when sometimes panic is precisely the thing that is called for. During 911 I’m sure most of the passengers in the plane that hit Tower 1 assumed they were part of another routine hostage situation, something that would be terrifying, but ultimately likely play out like so many in the past with scenes tired travellers exiting the plane somewhere on an airstrip in Lebanon. By the time the true reality found its way through to United Airlines flight 93 the passengers were desperately wrestling with their captors, unable to save themselves, but through their actions saving hundreds of other lives.
Mostly I’m thinking about my dad, now in his 80’s, back at home in Vancouver. I’m wondering if he ever thinks about those summer afternoons when the jet planes screeched above us. I’m wondering how he and my mom will fare in the wake of this oncoming storm. I’ve never wanted to be wrong about anything more, and learn that when the reality of what is happening now catches up with us all, it will be loud, and frightening, but ultimately it will pass and next summer we will all pack back into cafes, and bars, and concerts, and maybe even the odd airshow.