I try not to talk in the past tense but this has to do with today. A few weeks ago we were boarding, right up against our departure slot, two women in their seventies or eighties I’d guess, came on, shuffling their carry-ons sideways, up then down the aisle.
I asked, Where are you two going?
There’s a conference.
They’re talking about us.
So we thought we better go.
We wanted to be the ones talking about us, dear.
I meant, What are your seat numbers?
Their faces emptied, their mouths opened in little ‘o’s, a pot pourri of duty free tester perfume prickled my nose.
Then a jolly dark haired women came on, Know where you’re going girls? She looked at me and said, I’m the Old People’s Co-ordinator.
I said, I’m Hannah, the Cabin Manager, we really need to get everyone sat down.
Driving along the motorway to Liverpool I’m thinking about the time I sat with my Grandmother, watching seagulls swoop and climb over Neston front in the low sun.
She pointed to the gulls and said, Don’t you wish you could be like them, that you could fly?
The nearer I get to John Lennon, the crazier the wind becomes. In the Air School portacabin. Pavel says, Good news and bad news, we are going to fly, but it’s bumpy as hell up there.
He gives me forms to sign and coffee, he has an aviator moustache, a barman stomach.
We squeeze into the two seater, he takes me through the rules again, the tatty scuffed switches and gauges, we start, taxi and take off, bumping out over the estuary to bank right and level out at 2,000ft. As we fly over the city, Pavel gives me control.
Watching the gulls my Grandmother told me how she looked like her mother, round faced and the same crooked front teeth. I’d only ever seen photos of my great grandmother, she died at 59, and my Grandmother was 59 that day which means I must have been ten. It was strange being alone with her but felt good, talking about things, eating ice cream.
Over the wind farm in the bay Pavel gives me a heading towards the shore. I mess up the turn, lose altitude, he pushes the throttle a little and brings me back up. Pavel says, When we hit the coast it will be a roller coaster. We turn back into the wind and bump over the beaches and caravan parks.
That day my Grandmother kept going back to how she had been 59 when her mother died and now she was 59. And how because she had the same shaped face and the same crooked teeth she felt that this time was borrowed, undeserved.
I was born in 1959 and now I am 59. My Great Grandmother and my Grandmother had the same crooked teeth I have.
Pavel asks, Have you ever flown backwards?
Have you ever flown backwards?
Give me control. Pick a point over there.
I fix on a road at my ten o’clock. Pavel noses directly into the wind, drops the throttle lowers the flaps. We move away from the land in front of us.
I used to work with a man, a good cabin leader, Warren, but I noticed towards the end, I don’t mean the end of his life, he still might be alive for all I know, though I have noticed he isn’t active on social media anymore – I don’t know if he had much of a life outside the airline.
Towards the end it was all about the past. His past. Someone would say they’d been to a club, or had whatever, or met someone and Warren would jump in with how in Ayia Napa or when he did acid or a guy somewhere, like he was pressing them down, riding over them.
The daftest time was when Carl came by, the worst steward I ever worked with. He got a job as a sommelier at a new dining club in Castlefields, which is good because he knew a lot about wine but was a disaster in the galley of an aircraft. He came back to see us, the dreads he used to ram into a net sprung to a huge afro.
Warren, turned the plastic stirrer in his milky coffee, looked across at Carl and said, When I lived with that bloke in Moss Side I had hair like that, out here.
I looked at the sun streaming in through the windows on Warren’s thin hair, and over at Carl, and thought, OK, you may have had hair, and maybe you did do all those things, but now you’re this sour white man shrinking in on yourself and Carl was beautiful sitting there, casual, the light all round him, in his realm, already moved on. Coming back to see us was a human thing to do.
Warren got fired for taking miniatures home. They searched his bag one night. Such a daft way to go. Miniatures.
I have this story I have been thinking about a lot recently. I have told it to a few people, I must have, because I always start by saying, Stop me, if I have told you this … And I am looking at you desperately now thinking if there has been any occasion when I might have.
I am trying not to tell you. I may have told you before. It’s a memory, it happened. If I have, I’m sorry.
I’m not going to tell it now.
I am trying to press this memory down. So I am talking about Warren and Carl and my Grandmother and those ladies on the plane instead.
I have managed not to tell you. Just a daft incident that helped me make sense of a lot of things in my life.
I am here.
In the present.
I was clearing up after the meal service and she said, I love your hair dear.
One of the Old People Co-ordinator’s women, waiting by the galley for the toilet.
I said, This conference you’re off to then, what’s it about?
I carried on putting things away and told her, I am afraid I don’t really get dance, after a bit it’s all just one move after another, just for the sake of it.
You need content dear.
What’s your content?
Rage mainly, anger and rage, look.
She smiled and showed me a film on her small only just smart phone screen, I could make out a line of figures in black, red, white and blue stomping and staggering slightly, so fuzzy they could as easily have been a line of staggering babies as dancing ladies.
But before it was finished she was back on about my hair, I love it dear, I wish I’d had the courage to let mine go grey, all spiky like yours.
The way the hills roll and cut into the sea, the North Wales coast could be the Riviera if it weren’t for the weather and the ugly road and the caravan parks. I love being able to look out. Short haul is hard work. Non stop. Takes its toll. I’ve been lucky. Every time I approached retirement age they raised it for cabin crew. But they’re not going to go above sixty.
My mother hates me letting my hair go grey. My mother doesn’t have crooked teeth. Her smile is still working at 80, brochures for equity release and retirement homes now, but the work her smile did selling perfume and dresses in her twenties and thirties pays for these flying lessons now.
Pavel gives me a new heading and I keep the turn level into crosswind back out north over the estuary and as we fly over the wind farm he says, Every month now we get this aftercrap from Hurricane Suzie or Tina or …
We turn back towards John Lennon, I ask him, Why are all the beaches grass?
They’re green yes.
Grass, they didn’t used to be grass, they were beaches.
And maybe it is being 59 and having crooked teeth and a round face like my Grandmother and her mother, that I am thinking more in the past tense now. Not the story I was going to tell you, I am going to stop telling that story now. Just in case. This is just about the beach where I ate ice cream with my Gran. Pavel takes back control and we begin our descent over the house I grew up in. If I stick with Pavel, by the time I retire I will be licensed to fly, like the gulls.
As we are about to turn onto our downwind leg the controller asks us to enter a holding pattern. An air ambulance is being slipped in to land ahead of us. We circle, looking round but don’t spot the ambulance until a shadow drops over the runway threshold.
I am happy to get longer in the air.
At Chambery we had to wake the Old People’s Coordinator up, slumped and snoring she came out of a very deep dream saying something about elephants and lightening conductors.
The woman who showed me her dance was called Helen. As she passed me doing the thank you, goodbye, goodbye, thankyous next to the pilot, Helen dug her elbow in my ribs and said, I’ve decided, I’m going grey, like you, maybe fuzzy rather than spikes. And she held her hands out big as Carl’s afro. I did a daft dance move and she smiled and I wished her good luck with the conference.
It was a quick turn around and the dispatcher came on and said we had lost seat 59 for the return, a no show at the gate, their luggage was being offloaded.
I looked out at the fuel lines up into our wing. When I am filling my car I can’t let the petrol dial land anywhere higher than 59. If I did that will be the age I die. OK, sometimes I might stop at 98, 99, that seems impossible.
I wondered if I would be working Helen’s flight home.
They disconnected the fuel lines, the airbridge, we left.
In a quiet moment on the way home I sat in seat 59, to fill it with someone.
Commissioned by Yorkshire Dance as a response to the Encounters Festival, re-imagining age through dance, Leeds, October 2019