“Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanos in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. But, provided our own position is secure…they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature.”
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment.
God, it was good. Unbelievably good. It was an explosion, an earthquake. She thought she’d faint. When it was over and they lay there shaken to the core he whispered into her ear, “Jesus, the earth moved.” It was sublime.
He’d come to her office with his mean little wife and their brats, shopping for an architect. Carolyne had presented the plans for the last house she’d designed. Andy, the owner, was still moving in.
The wife had peered meanly while Carolyne cast her professional eye over the husband. He was George Clooney, minus the silver hair.
“Shouldn’t there be walls here?” the wife demanded. “You can see directly into the master bedroom.”
“I thought you said you knew Andy,” Carolyne objected, her eyes glued to hubby.
The wife scrunkled her mean little nose. “I don’t think I’d like this.”
“Come and see,” Carolyne urged. “I’m making a site visit.”
The wife muttered something about transporting the brats to school but then the husband said, “You drop them, honey. I’ll go report back.”
They puttered down the coast road, rather than the freeway, because the forward gears on Carolyne’s Citroën were slightly malfunctioning (reverse was fine). She clutched the shift so that each time they turned west her knuckles brushed hubby’s thigh. Hubby turned out to be Andy’s tax advisor.
“I know this isn’t my brief,” Carolyne remarked as they cornered, “but isn’t your wife paranoid about privacy?”
“Paranoid? Yeah, right.”
“Let me prove her wrong,” Carolyne said at Andy’s. “You stay here and I’ll zip up to the bedroom. What I’m going to do,” she called from above, “is strip naked. Now I dare you to see anything. All you can see is my head, right?”
“I can see your everything.”
“Get out. You can’t see below my shoulders.”
“What’s my tattoo of, then?”
Carolyne descended the staircase nude, except for a sheet.
“Andy must have let on. Go up and I’ll try.” The husband obliged.
“Can you see?” he called.
“No,” Carolyne called back. She tiptoed up the stairs in bare feet. “But now I can. Oooh. You’ve got a tattoo as well. I like it.”
After that she was hooked. It was the whole moving earth thingy. At work she surrounded his name with hearts and flowers. When he called, her phone lit up with a picture of him demonstrating another failure of privacy. She’d down tools and race (well, for the Citroën) to Andy’s where she could be sure not to be interrupted—Andy had been advised to go into indefinite tax exile. It was so good that it made her forget everything else, which was the point really.
That’s right, the moving earth thingy. Such an erotic metaphor. But not quite so appropriate for architecture because as things turned out while Carolyne was enjoying tectonic experiences in her client’s bedroom, somewhere seaward of Andy’s address the Pacific Plate was merrily wending its way southeast at about fifteen millimetres a year while, cheek by jowl, the North American Plate ground past at a similar terrapinic speed, the pair building up slippage that finally chose to relieve itself on a sun drenched afternoon in October just when Carolyne had terminated her screaming and just at the moment the husband she was embedded with had said, “The earth really moved that time.”
These were his parting words. For at that moment the roof fell in. Actually, a few things happened prior. The bed heaved, a vase smashed, the house groaned, the windows exploded, the power cut off and the ceiling divided in twain. But the roof was the clincher. It wasn’t supposed to fall. Carolyne had designed it to withstand…well…an earthquake. But the contractor, O'Reilly, impatient for their shipment of beams, had obtained some cheaper substitutes. These had not been up to scratch. Of course if there had been walls…but then she wouldn’t have been in that situation.
It took Carolyne a while to realise she wasn’t dead. She could neither see, nor hear, nor move. But she grew certain she still existed. After all, how else could she be certain? And besides she was still breathing, and definitely not in the after world, because she knew that in the after world your mouth wasn’t stuffed with drywall dust and your body didn’t ache as if you’d spent a weekend in a concrete mixer.
As time passed a strange coldness began to press against her. With horror she realised that on top of her was a dead body, clutching her in a final, carnal embrace. Then came the aftershocks. The body shuffled, embracing more tightly. She was sealed in a sarcophagus with a corpse. He’d decompose! His flesh would rot and his bare bones would skewer her. She struggled until she almost had a fit, but Andy’s not-to-spec roof stayed put until twenty four hours later rescuers hoisted it and separated her from the dead husband, a howling, gibbering wreck.
As the doctors informed her, Carolyne had been shielded by the skull of the husband who’d been moving the earth for her. Her bones were unbroken and her vital signs were thumbs up. She was soon discharged from hospital and welcomed back to work where thanks to O'Reilly there was plenty to do. But just as her business prospects brightened her personal life span its tail. Carolyne possessed an outgoing personality, but even before the earthquake she’d been plagued by anxiety. Predatory sex had been the one reliable method of keeping her attacks at bay. She knew women who ate chocolate or bought shoes to battle their demons. But although she very much liked and approved of chocolate eating and shoe buying they fell short of the sublime and it was only by sleeping with other women’s husbands—significant numbers of them—that she’d held it together. Post-earthquake that’s what she needed to do. Only she couldn’t. Flashbacks to Andy’s bedroom utterly ruined the mood.
“Ahhh!” she’d yelp, leaping naked from someone’s marital bed. “What was that?”
“What was what?” the husbands would enquire.
“I think the earth just moved.”
“No, you idiot, really.”
The husbands generally concluded Carolyne was nuts, though once a sympathetic engineer named Max pointed at his bedside seismograph, “Look. It was nothing,” and they’d been able to resume kissing. Next thing she was in the door frame, hands above head.
“Shit. This is hopeless!”
What could she do?
She must see Dr Pántaloon, her therapist prescribed. Dr Pántaloon was the world’s foremost architectural psychiatrist, the author of such celebrated texts as Folie architecturale and Trottoir fou. His clinic had famously been designed by its own inmates, working from the roof down. No one was better qualified.
As a bonus Carolyne discovered, after flying to Paris, that in the flesh Dr Pántaloon was also George Clooney—that’s to say, if you disregarded the non-silver hair and the beard obscuring the chin, and his English, mildly less atrocious than her French. The man was truly yummy.
Unfortunately Carolyne’s case proved intractable.
« Ahhh! she yelped, leaping naked from the side of the bed normally occupied by the doctor’s second wife. Ce qui était celui?
“What was what?” the doctor asked, reaching for cigarettes.
— Je pense la terre juste déplacée.
— Non, tu idiot, vraiment.
“Ah, you Americarns.” Ze doctor puffed smoke towards the ceiling mirror. “Always zee ’emingway.”
— Oubliez Hemingway. C’est un tremblement de terre!
“Ah! Carm back to bed, ma chère, and I will show you ze quake of ze earse.”
— Merde! C’est désespéré. »
But Dr Pántaloon wasn’t the sort of Frenchman to admit defeat.
“You pearsue me. Yet you raypoolse me also.”
Carolyne admitted that this was true. Each time she boarded the plane for Paris she felt a strange liberation, a tingling. Yet when she arrived at Clinique Pántaloon or at the apartment of the doctor’s second wife the liberation and tingling had gone—poof!—and she went to pieces again.
“Pearaps eet ees guilt zat you feel.”
— Culpabilité? Quelle culpabilité?
“Pearaps eet eez guilt about zee uzzer womans?”
“Well, you know, I am sinking zat az zee harchitect you are hallways building, bart…een your private life…you are hallways destroying…you are hallways pooling down. About zees pearaps you are feeling guilty.”
— Tu devrie raser, she said inspecting Dr P.’s beard. Alors tu regarderie plutôt George Clooney.
“George Clooney? Oo eez ee?”
For six months Carolyne’s predatory sex-life went nowhere. Flying to Paris she felt great, but once there she felt terror. Flying back home again she felt brave, but on the ground she went to pieces. What was happening?
The answer came as she was reading Part 3 of the airline edition of Gulliver’s Travels. Simple. On earth she felt anxious, off it she felt sublime.
“Bart ow can zees be?” Dr Pántaloon asked.
— Le ciel ne tremble pas, Carolyne explained.
“Ah,” said Dr Pántaloon reaching for the cigarettes his second wife had left behind when she moved out of the apartment, “zat ees dip.”
Deep or not, Carolyne now knew what she must do.
There was a tricky moment towards the close of her interview with the airline company.
“I see from your résumé you’re a woman. Excuse me, an architect.”
“Well…I’m just wondering….”
“I’m sorry. I must have missed something.”
“You don’t have them in the air.”
“Architects really hate earthquakes.”
“Is that right? Yes. I suppose they would.”
Hearing no news from the airline Carolyne decided she wasn’t aiming high enough. However, the space program informed her they were recruiting only ex-military with experience in corporate litigation. Fortunately the airline belatedly responded after its cabin staff struck over working conditions.
The worst of Carolyne’s training was the simulator, a worn out, wingless cabin that shook “like a minor earthquake,” as her instructor crowed. Carolyne hyperventilated. Had the company not already locked out its own staff her traineeship would have been aborted. But she soon found herself pushing a refreshment cart at thirty thousand feet, under harsh industrial conditions, but blissfully free of anxiety. In fact if Carolyne had had her choice she would have worked under the harshest possible conditions, flying continually, never touching ground. She kept her cool even during a mid-air incident when a starboard engine vacuumed a flock of guillemots.
And in time she made a singular discovery about her new vocation—that other staff had enlisted with the same motive—captains, navigators, stewards, even cleaners—all were terrified of terra firma and formed a secret band. By faking records, by covering for each other, they managed to avoid rest days, leave, days off and holidays, and live out their lives in the upper atmosphere. They fed on airline food, entertained themselves with airline movies, informed themselves with airline magazines, wore only airline uniforms, and washed themselves in airline bathrooms.
For Carolyne it was a wonderful new life, a life of high society. The hum of jets became so constant it went unnoticed, like the music of the spheres, and each aircraft became as familiar as a dorm. Even in her sleep she knew just where she was—today on the Magellan, yesterday on the Bougainville, the day before yesterday on the Icarus. She scarcely bothered what border she was crossing. Mountains, oceans, jungles, dunes were occasionally glimpsed out portholes. But they were post card images, small and remote.
With the aid of fellow terraphobics she conducted her affairs entirely off the ground. On one flight she had a dental inspection, on another a pap smear. She met Dr Pántaloon again, returning from a conference, and he introduced her to his third wife. He had shaved and looked, as Carolyne had predicted, even more like George Clooney, still excepting the non-silver hair. But this time she was content to be hands-off.
And that was the thing. Flying so far subducted her anxiety that she’d lost the predatory urge. There was ample opportunity in aeroplanes. It really was incredible the effect they had on people. But Carolyne thought now she would wait until Mr Right.
“Look who it is!” the woman passenger hissed, tugging at Carolyne’s sleeve. “It’s him! It’s George Clooney!”
It was one of those unavoidable moments between shifts when Carolyne found herself back on earth. She was trying to ventilate normally until they resumed flight. Passengers were always mis-sighting celebrities. Of course it wouldn’t be George Clooney. But the woman was totally Clooniac. “Look! It’s him. I swear.”
Carolyne finally looked. Oh, God! This time it really was.
Forgetting her anxiety she left the woman’s locker unattended and hurried to the passenger list. George Clooney, George Clooney, George Clooney, George Clooney. Oh. No. It was some random man called Alex. All the same, he could have fooled anyone. He had the eyes exactly, the chin, the silver hair. Everything. He was as close to George Clooney as was humanly possible. He was George Clooney!
Carolyne swapped aisles with Cindy, the crew member opposite port side, before Cindy had noticed the GC clone. She ran down the aisle to offer him a complimentary headset and when he thanked her he even sounded like George Clooney!
But there was also something not right. His eyes darted round the cabin while they taxied. He asked repeatedly to pull the shutter. As they sat on the runway waiting clearance Carolyne strolled past, checking the seat belts and noticed his knuckles.
“Is there something wrong, sir?”
His hand flashed out and grabbed hers.
“I need to use the bathroom.”
“After take-off, sir.”
“I need to use the bathroom.”
“We’ll be airborne momentarily.”
“I need to use the bathroom now.”
His Clooney tan had drained away. He was shaking as he fumbled with his seat belt.
“Sir. Please remain seated, sir. I’m sorry, it’s regulations. You can’t…here, okay, allow me to assist. Is it…no, I’ll help you. Here. Quickly. You might just have time before we commence…no, this one…push this panel…please be as quick…I’ll wait outside….”
Carolyne glanced across the bulkhead. Cindy stabbed her finger and mouthed, Is it George Clooney? Carolyne shook her head. She heard a thump. “Sir? Are you okay in there, sir? Is anything the matter? Sir?”
Another thump. The engines throttled up. “Sir?” Oh, please God, don’t collapse. Don’t keep us on the ground. “Sir! Can you hear me? Are you okay?” A crash. Carolyne deactivated the lock and tugged open the door. “Sir…Are you…Oh, oh, dear. I’m sorry…What’s happened? Let me. Can I…your trouser…here…Oh, dear…Oh, I’m very sorry…”
Carolyne was only familiar with the parts of George Clooney that it was possible to view on screen but she imagined that the parts that didn’t appear on screen might not be unlike what she was seeing now. Or they might be…well, who knows. It didn’t matter. Oh, dear. “Can you just…can I…here let me…oh, look…you have a tattoo…just like…oh, really…maybe we’d better just push this…shut this…door.” There was a violent thundering. The plane’s nose pitched up. They were ready to go. The aircraft roared down the runway. The pair of them squashed together in the tiny space. Her uniform rode up. Everything creaked and bumped and rattled like the world was ending. Oooh! The nose lifted clear. They accelerated faster, faster, faster, and bang, up they went. First the nose. Then the undercarriage. The bumping became a glide. Roaring filled her ears. Oh, dear. Oh, God. The wheels folded up inside the body. Gulp. No, don’t do the screaming. They mustn’t hear. Oh, boy. That’s…Oh, oh, oh, boy.
When the aircraft levelled off after the first step in its climbout Carolyne vaguely registered the seatbelt sign ping in the distance. Passengers queued outside. Some knocked before shifting to the other toilet’s longer queue. Carolyne didn’t even get her feet back on the floor before she felt the second step of the climbout as the nose pitched up again. More knocks, another levelling off, then the third step of the climbout. Finally, after the plane had levelled off for the last time and all the flaps and slats were retracted, she let her feet slip down until her toes were wiggling just above the floor. The plane was in the stratosphere and inside it too she was floating on air. Oh, God. Oh, freaking God. It was sublime.
She stared Alex/George in the face, which she was now cradling between her hands. “Will you marry me?” she muttered. “No, don’t say it. Don’t say anything. Just nod your head.”
“What the hell were you doing?” Cindy hissed as Carolyne caught up with the refreshment cart.
“I was getting engaged,” Carolyne told her, dispensing a diet soda.
“Oh, sure you were. In the bathroom.”
When they’d finished with the drinks and the meals and the tea and coffee and Carolyne finally had a free moment she hurried back to Alex/George only to find him, against all expectations, glum.
“What is it?” she asked gently stroking his hand. The knuckles were blanched like almonds. “What’s wrong, sweetheart? Are you upset about what happened? Is there someone else? Are you married?”
He smiled weakly. “No…”
“What’s wrong then?”
It took him a moment to get the words out. “I’m scared.”
“Scared? I’m not dangerous. What are you scared of?”
“I’m scared of flying! I’m terrified of flying!”
Carolyne laughed so loudly that heads turned. “But that’s ridiculous! How can you be scared? You’re totally safe up here.”
Alex/George looked appalled. “We’re going to crash,” he squeaked.
Carolyne laughed again. “Of course we’re not going to crash.”
“I want to be back on the ground.”
“No you don’t.”
“I do. I want to be back on the ground. Something bad’s going to happen.”
“For goodness sake, bad things don’t happen up in the air. Was what we just did so bad?” Alex struggled to smile but couldn’t. “Believe me,” she said. “Bad things happen on the ground not in the air.” He shook his head. “Yes, they do.”
“What bad things happen on the ground?”
“All kinds. You know…things like earthquakes.”
Alex/George sat up in his premium economy seat and looked suddenly alert. “You’re worried about earthquakes?”
“But earthquakes are incredibly rare.”
“I know. They’re way too rare.”
“Well, I happen to know about earthquakes too.”
So Carolyne explained about Andy’s house, his tax advisor, the failure of his beams, her nervous breakdown, Dr Pántaloon and how she’d finally come to reside in the air. Alex listened with macabre fascination.
Then it was his turn to laugh. Only wretchedly. “I can’t believe this. It’s not possible. It can’t be. Do you know why I’m heading to Iceland?”
“Iceland? Is that where we’re going? Well, no. I don’t know why. To see the ice?”
Alex shook his head. “What else does Iceland have?”
“I really couldn’t say.”
“Iceland has a whopping great crack that goes all the way through the earth’s crust.”
“And in twenty four hours—though you won’t know this—it’s going to bust wide open.”
“Oh, my god, Alex. Don’t tell me any more. Please.”
But it was too late. Now it was Alex’s story time.
As he explained to Carolyne, his parents had been missionaries. Not long before his birth the Lord had called them to do His work in a remote, seismically active area of the Philippines. There’d been no hospital for a hundred miles and no village doctor and not only had his mother’s pregnancy been complicated by obstetric hypertension but at the moment of delivery the village had been struck by even more than usually severe earth tremors, causing everyone in attendance to duck for cover. Alex had barely survived. His mother had not.
The loss of his cherished wife had led Alex’s father to dedicate his remaining days to saving the souls of the villagers and it was amongst them Alex had grown up, never knowing maternal tenderness. Instead, having been abandoned at the moment of his birth by all other human beings, what had left its lifelong imprint on his neonatal mind was not the face or voice or smell of his mother but the violent shakings of the earth. When the village shuddered—and it unfailingly did so because it was slap bang in the Pacific Ring of Fire—Alex would remain on his feet, blissful, while others skedaddled. On Sundays, after church, he’d climb the adjacent mountain and lie flat, absorbing its motion through his soul.
At eighteen he left for London. This, his first plane trip, unexpectedly freaked him out. He found life as a student very hard. His father had enrolled him in divinity, for which he exhibited zero talent. He suffered intense homesickness, not for his father, but for the village that had rocked him in its cradle. As is known, the entire United Kingdom is seismically challenged. Alex spent more and more of his time reading about violent geological events and less and less about God. At the end of his first year he was rock bottom in his divinity class and chronically unwell. He spent his holidays in a hammock on his father’s veranda, convalescing as he watched the white volcanic plumes and felt small eruptions transmitting through the veranda pillars and along the hammock’s ropes. To him these oscillations were lullabies.
He recovered quickly enough to take another out freaking flight back to London for the new academic year. But in the second week of classes he was telephoned by the consulate and informed that just like the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles (the consular official had a First in classics) his father had met his maker after tumbling into the local volcano’s maw. He and some parishioners had hiked to the summit after the mountain had abruptly gone dormant. Alex had no choice but to fly in terror back to the mission. The information proved true. Both his father and the mountain were thoroughly deceased. So now he was doubly bereaved, of not just a cold and distant father but of a warm and trembling step-mother.
Returning to London by liner and with no one to dictate his future he chucked divinity to throw himself into a seismology degree, completing his field work on Mt Etna. It was clear that he couldn’t live without a volcano. Yet it also became clear that neither Etna nor Vesuvius nor any of the other volcanos he got to know could truly make him happy. They were not his mother. That was how he came to specialise in new eruptions. From Hawaii to Africa, from Japan to New Zealand, from South America to Indonesia he searched, as men will search, for a reminder of his mother. And as his longing grew so did his fear of flying. The only remedy for his horror of the air was to locate some female passenger who recognised his resemblance to George Clooney sufficiently to be enticed into a bathroom where in the embarrassment and misunderstanding of aeroplane sex he could obliterate his phobia. That was his life.
By the time Alex had ended his story Carolyne was in tears.
“I’m sorry. I really am so sorry.”
“Oh, Alex. Alex. What on earth am I going to do?”
“You know what I mean.”
After she’d wept quietly onto his shoulder Carolyne dried her eyes and checked the screen. “Shit. We’re approaching. I have to get ready.” But she didn’t rise from her seat. She broke into new sobs.
And then, expecting to feel the plane begin its slow and worrying descent, she was surprised to feel it bank to starboard, throttle up and climb.
“That’s weird,” she muttered, wiping her eyes on the airline pillow. “We’re changing course.” She sniffed and cracked open the shutter. Light entered. But it was weak. The sun was high, but dim orange, so dim she could stare without blinking. It was like an ornament. “Look at that.”
Alex looked and sat bolt upright. “Oh, Jesus.”
“Aya fairt la yoghurt?”
“Eyjafjallajökull,” he repeated vehemently. “It’s started.”
The plane banked again and kept climbing, the reverse of what it was meant to be doing. A suave voice came over the intercom.
“Your attention please ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain, Roger de Coverley, speaking. Just letting you know about a little change of plan this morning. Due to a slight patch of turbulence up ahead we’ll be running you round to the northwest…” There was the most god-almighty bang, convulsing the entire fuselage. “Jesus Effing Christ, what was that?”
“Rog, you’ve still got the mic on.”
“I know I’ve got the effing mic on. What bloody happened?”
“I think it was a rock.”
“A rock? It felt more like a great effing boulder. Christ, there’s another one. Holy shit!”
The aircraft lurched this time. And groaned. When Carolyne glanced out the porthole a thick stream of grey mist was hurtling over the airfoil. The cabin lights lost power and returned, dimly, as dimly as the ornamental sun. The fasten-seatbelt sign pinged. Oxygen masks jack-in-the-boxed from overhead lockers.
“WHAT’S HAPPENING!” passengers shouted.
For minutes there was the sound of heavy rain. Only that was impossible. They were too high for rain. Then, like a really tight, well rehearsed jazz combo, the two jet engines on the starboard wing came to a dead stop at the same moment as the two jet engines on the port wing, so that the storm of crap that had been pummelling the plane’s outside could now be heard in all its brilliance. Down went the nose, so abruptly that the passengers let out a great squeal like the riders of a roller coaster. Carolyne grasped instantly. The plane was commencing emergency engine restart procedure. The crew had rehearsed and rehearsed this. Well, at least once. Down, down, down, lower and lower, swifter and swifter the aircraft plunged in a desperate gamble to clear the turbines and restart the stalled jets, with the passengers screaming in utter panic, until abruptly the aircraft levelled out and the passengers hushed, which allowed Carolyne to hear that none of the engines had completed a restart, which in turn meant basically that they were effed, as Roger, their captain, would have put it. Well and truly effed. The crew had abandoned the attempt and were in an uncontrolled glide. An hysterical calm settled over the cabin.
But within seconds there was another terrifying bang and the passengers took up panicking where they’d left off. A detached, almost sinister voice addressed them. “Local time in Reykjavík is now 10.42, if you’re wanting to adjust your sun dials. Ground temperature is just above zero, though under the ground it’s probably considerably warmer. Currently we have a fairly still – ha, ha - day in Reykjavík with a steady rain of ash, volcanic bombs, and ignimbrite. The weather bureau is predicting overcast conditions in the coming decade with a chance of global winter. Thank you for flying Air…Air…whatever the eff we are…It hardly matters now…Oh, and one thing…if you were thinking of cutting anyone cutting your will I’d be punching out a text right now. You never know, we might get close enough to reception for your lawyers to pick it up.” Click.
Carolyne looked at Alex. Alex looked back. All around them was pandemonium with some of the passengers stuffing their mouths with chocolate and some of the passengers stealing other passengers’ shoes and even some of the passengers fighting to gain access to the toilets. Then Carolyne recalled that they were still in the air and Alex recalled that they were in the power of a volcano. They squeezed each other’s hand and smiled. And began undressing. Once Carolyne freed herself from her uniform and her sticky underwear she pressed her thumb against the button and Alex’s seat went flat. She pushed her fingers into his silver hair, kissed him on the lips, climbed on top of him and felt at last the courage to be able to measure herself against the seeming omnipotence of nature.
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