A QUICK LITERARY BREAK
The Doolin poetry and short story competition has opened. So you can get a feel for a winning entry, here is the runner-up of the 2014 short story.
By Michael J Farrell
The boarding pass said seat 36C. By the window — I always insist on it. Which is, I suppose, perverse, since heights scare the hell out of me. On the other hand there is the eagle’s eye view. Call it hubris, I have always wanted to be a high flyer. Then lo: everybody’s worst nightmare. A fellow with a turban had beaten me to 36C. A terrorist or some such—I’m no expert on foreigners. Word was that most airline passengers were possibly if not probably Al Qaeda. This was the time of the Baghdad bother. The dust had scarcely settled on 9/11. Worse was promised.
“I believe you’re in my seat.”
It sounded like perfect English. He then extricated himself with all the elegance of an elephant and wedged himself into 36B. He was about fifty. He sported that jet-black moustache favoured by the House of Saud, and ditto the dark glasses. As I squeezed past his ample belly he looked like a martyr at peace with his upcoming demise. Then began the saga of the bag, a bulky canvas affair that had been anchored beneath his feet and must now be redeployed. Quite possibly it was full of dirty laundry. Or, if he were a bomber, this surely was the bomb. The way he abused the bag made me nervous, though if there’s anything for which a bomber must have respect, it must surely be his bomb.
Eventually I took one end while he took the other, and this modest cooperation yielded agreeable results. I could detect no suspicious shape, not that I knew what shapes were trendy in the explosives trade. “Thank you,”’ he said several times. He was quite flustered. I cursed my negligence for not knowing more about jihad and that. Like so many contemporary philosophers, I had elbowed aside the home-grown gods of Jews and gentiles but especially Allah and his robust approach to the heaven-earth axis.
How many hours to Dublin?” he asked.
“Six,” I said. “I think,” I added. Ridiculously, I wanted to cooperate.
I pulled out the folded ticket. Depart Newark 7:45. Arrive Dublin 7:30 in the morning. I read it out to him. Let him add the five-hour differential himself. Or was it subtract? Every option seemed fraught with implications. If I were a bomber, would I get the thing over with right away or give myself a few extra hours of living, including drinks and a meal, not to mention some final chat? It wouldn’t matter to the other passengers or even the pilot. Ignorance would be bliss. Allah would be cool either way. Allah had time on his side.
There was the usual flurry of activity. Flight attendants clicked shut the overhead bins with efficient finality, like lids on coffins. Each flight was a mighty undertaking. Thousands of people were involved, from the captain to those who cooked the chicken for the much-maligned dinners.
Civilization had constructed a great edifice and aviation was a highlight — until the arrival of the suicide bomber. The captain welcomed us aboard. He sounded cheerful and competent, not knowing any better. I presumed I was the only one with inside information. Then again, there could be multiple eyes glued to this rascal: CIA or M16 or whatnot. In epistemology we wrestle with who knows what. Yet the more we speculate the less we are likely to do anything. I sat immobilized. I would look ridiculous if I mistakenly pointed the finger. He could even sue. In short, I lacked the courage to create a scene.
He rummaged in the canvas bag. It might already be too late. “Would you like a banana?”
“No, thank you.” There was room in the bag for both bananas and bombs. When an idea takes hold, it is the devil to dislodge it.
Once the plane was airborne, my shot at heroism would be over. I glanced around in a silly search for a sky marshal. It was of the essence of sky marshals, however, that they be incognito. My conspicuous friend could be one in disguise. I marvelled at the ingenuity of it. “I bet you think I’m a suicide bomber,” he read my mind. The plane had begun to taxi out for take-off. Once we were in the air, everything but this jovial fellow’s agenda would be beside the point. Unless he was just a foolish passenger doing the unmentionable by mentioning a bomb.
“And are you?” I blurted. “Oh, it’s not suicide. It’s martyrdom—a different can of worms entirely. Are you planning to be a martyr, then?”
Circumstances, especially money, dictated that I teach existentialism in a wealthy private college. I don’t agree with half of it, yet the other half leaves one with an acute awareness of the existential moment during which one chooses who or what one will be and do later on—Sartre explains it infinitely better than my own modest Existentialism Made Easy. In short, it was this existential nonsense that urged me to challenge the banana eater.
“If you had any such plans, you’d be doing me a personal favour by saying so while there is still time to get off.” Even as I said it, I knew such a gesture was not consistent with the terrorist ethos. He smiled and I grinned back at him. I believe I then hoped, assuming he intended to do some foul deed, to make him care enough about me that he would put the deed off to another day and another flight, and no one need be any the wiser.
Then it was too late. The mighty machine roared down the runway. At the last moment it won the battle with gravity. At least for the time being. Gravity never rested. Normally I take great care not to speak to other passengers. One sentence and you’ve had it, they’re telling you about their broken marriage or their holiday in your homeland. Yet I opted to talk this fellow into forgetting his agenda if he had one.
“Do you enjoy flying?” If one asked the right questions one could upend the earth, the Greeks used to say. Though getting the right answers must also have something to do with it. “My name is Don,” I added. This was true, though naturally not the whole truth.
“And mine is Ali.” I presumed this wasn’t the whole truth, either, but progress was being made on the firm basis of mutual mistrust. The red sun sent slanting light through our small window. Stewards were making their way down the aisle with their trolley of drinks. I asked for the orange juice, no ice. He asked for the same. We are all swayed by each other in trivial and sometimes momentous ways: gravity of a whole other order.
“I’m from Tipperary,” I said, “though I have been teaching in the States for twenty-five years.” He beamed at this. He did not seem to have a mean bone in his body. He would, if the stories were true, be looking forward to the company of those seventy virgins promised to all martyrs. He would take no pleasure in killing us, my speculative mind ran on. He would do it because there was some mighty imperative. It had to be more compelling than seventy virgins. At his age, and in his physical shape, half a dozen would do.
“Philosophy,” I elaborated. “I teach existential philosophy to rich girls in New England.”
“Very interesting.” What a soggy old cliché. None of it was interesting unless we went on to the more telling details, the existential nuts and bolts.
“But existentialism is passé , as anyone will tell you, since the disillusion of the sixties and then the Richard Nixon fiasco. So now I teach cosmology. The future, I am convinced, is out there among the stars.” And with my thumb I indicated some local stars beyond the window.
One had to be there, as they say, to appreciate the irony of a terrorist actually agreeing with one. There was also the gut feeling factor. I know this would not stand up in court, but most relationships, from the marriage bed to international cloak and dagger, are based on the inelegantly named gut feeling that the parties are a fit, somehow akin. One does not have to be a philosopher to see this basic distinction between, say, friends and enemies.
Ali was looking to me suspiciously like a friend. But because the world has become so muddled, so rife with backstabbing, one has learned to mistrust such benign impulses. The flight attendant announced a choice of salmon or chicken for dinner. Any salmon that had strayed so far from its native shore struck me as risky.
“Still, I detest chicken,” I said to my new friend.
“That chicken is far from home.” His logic reflected my own. Logic possessed a compelling power that had been largely ignored since Aristotle first conjured it out of the air. If this stranger and I could trim logic to its essentials, if we could squeeze the excess fat out of it, politicians and clergy and other do-gooders might then pick it up and forge some useful alliances for the common good. The fish, as I had feared, was an old fish, probably stashed for years in some warehouse freezer cheek-by-jowl with sturgeon from Russia and prawns from Galway Bay. I have often wondered what happens to all the fish that don’t get caught. Do they just die and sink to the bottom of the sea? One seldom sees them floating on top. One wonders, similarly, what happens to mice that escape the mouse trap or your local cat. And likewise all the animals up and down the food chain that manage to avoid getting caught in the food chain itself.
In a wildly trivialized world, life and death have remained 5 grossly under-explored. I don’t blame science for this. I blame philosophy, which went belly-up this past century, agonising over verbal claptrap. What I like best about airline meals, incidentally, are the peripherals: the micro-cup of coffee, the delicate triangle of cheese, the morsel of chocolate.
“So tell me: are you bound for Dublin or just passing through?”
“Passing through,” he said.
“I’m a consultant. I go here and there.”
“Consultant sounds very, I don’t know, highbrow, I guess.”
“Mostly in the technical field.”
“But, in case you’re wondering, that does not rule out the terrorist scenario,” his tone was confidential. Just when I thought we had put all that behind us. “I presume this is our little joke?”
It is inevitable that occasionally one be lost for words. Hindsight says I should have yelled: hey, we have a bomber here! Or some such—there is no formula. Such a fuss, on the other hand, might cause him to do what he had not, in fairness, done to date, namely kill us. And what if I accused him unfairly? There must be consequences for that.
“And by the way,” I resumed negotiations, “you’d be wise not to mention you-know-what to strangers, because not everyone will see the joke.”
“Oh, bombs are no joke.” He looked frightfully solemn.
“Have you ever heard of the Zeldovich pancake?”
“I never have.”
“Where did the world come from?” I was, for a moment, back in the classroom in Vermont, doing what I did best. “Where did the wind come from? And the moon and galaxies?” Old rhetorical guff, one may say, but if asked with the right degree of sincerity such questions can provoke surprising circumspection. “There are, as you may know, two theories of how the world started. From the bottom up or from the top down. Some say small particles came together, attracted by gravity, first to form smaller lumps, though in this context lump is a dubious unit of measurement.” I glanced to see his reaction, if any, and found him attentive. “Then these lumps took bigger shapes such as planets and suns, which in turn became galaxies and all that. Others say no, reality was first one big mass and then it broke into pieces. Including stars and black holes and all.” I myself had no clue how any of this worked in real life or how we stumbled from the big bang to sitting side by side in a tin can above the Atlantic. “The big news is, astrophysicists have detected a giant blob of primordial gas, way out at the edge of nowhere, so far out they think it might be a chunk of the original stuff broken off by the big bang. Zeldovich, a Russian, concluded this thing was in the shape of a pancake, a really big one. So they call it Zeldovich’s pancake.”
“This is really true?” I knew then that I was making progress. Perhaps, if we could round a hypothetical bend or two together, I could lead this questing spirit whither the sailing was smoother. “Every so often,” I adjusted my seatbelt and turned to face him, “we humans get — let’s call them insights. Special moments of clarity when the forest seems transparent and the trees alive and it all makes sense. For every such insight, alas, there usually are years of numbness, of life lived by rote.” I have no idea what got me going down that particular road, unless maybe his ticking bomb insisted I had never tallied life up as philosophers hanker to do. “Occasionally, out of all this ennui, would leap something special. The voyage of the Hubble telescope into s pace provided such an occasion.” For years I had been telling this garbage to bored students in Vermont, peppering my diatribes with risqué asides to keep them from hating me. Now I inexplicably realized that, as life swung by, there came eventually a relevant moment for every point of view. “The pictures Hubble sent back haunted me. One photo showed the Cartwheel Galaxy, 500 million light years away, in the Constellation Sculptor. That particular picture showed a head-on collision between two galaxies. The enormous shock sent gas and dust scrambling at 200,000 miles per hour, eventually forming the cartwheel, which is about 150,000 light years across. This cartwheel, NASA tells us, contains several billion new stars brought into existence by the collision.”
I paused to let those lofty thoughts sink in. Other passengers were settling down for a broken night’s sleep. I had, in the meantime, formulated a plan. If Ali made any move, I would kill him. This posed certain problems. We were not allowed to take lethal weapons on board. Time may show that such restrictions place the would-be hero at a decided disadvantage. Still, I felt sure I could get the job done. I’d start by trying to strangle him and then play it by ear. I felt profoundly motivated. This episode had brought home to me that life is sweet and should when possible be prolonged.
He delved again into the canvas bag, extracted two small bottles of brandy from a side pocket. He handed me one, held up his own, and we touched them in a toast. “To the gas pancake,” he said.
“I thoug ht Allah frowned on alcohol.”
“Except on special occasions.” Even ordinary remarks sounded sinister. Even with the bottles removed, the bag was still full of something. He had not gone to the toilet. If he took the bag, I’d know the game was up. If he left it behind, I planned to poke it a bit, take a peek. But the existentialist thing was still in play. Sartre would love the irony of Ali leaving the bag for me to fondle that bomb until it went boom. He never went to the toilet, though. Which raises further questions. Perhaps it was the brandy. I could see his eyes close, his head loll back. I was feeling mellow myself, drowsy. I awoke to find his sleeping head resting on my shoulder. He’s not in that bombing mood, I thought with satisfaction, and went back to sleep.
“I’m pleased to have made your acquaintance,” he said quite formally when I bumped into him again at the baggage place. He no longer had the canvas bag, though, and I’ve been wondering about that.
Budding and established poets and writers are being invited to submit entries for 2015. The prize fund for First Place in each both competitions is €1000, while the winner will also receive a publishing consultation with Tramp Press and Salmon Poetry. The competition entry fee is €10 and the closing date is Friday, 20 February, 2015 at 5pm. Shortlisted authors will be announced on Friday, 13 March, 2015 and the winners announced during the Doolin Writer’s Weekend in Doolin, County Clare from March 27-29, 2015.
For further details on the Doolin Writer’s Weekend and to download an entry form for the Doolin Poetry & Short Story Competition.
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