We are driving to the airport in the dark. It is unpalatably early and, frankly, I should still be unconscious in my bed. Five hours sleep is nothing more than a nap. It leaves me feeling fragmented and a tiny bit grumpy. The rain is tumbling down, just as it has been for days, and there’s a blustery wind. I’ve begun to forget what sunshine looks like. Brittany had better be nice, is all I can say. It’s going to be our home for the next five days.
The airport is swarming with passengers. We join the lengthy queue to check in bags and make such slow progress that even before we’ve reached the halfway point, they’re asking passengers on our flight to make themselves known. My hand shoots up. Like royalty, we’re ushered to the front and check in our bags. My son and I make it through security without any hiccups. My mother, however, sets off several alarms and gets the not-quite-so-Royal patting down treatment. Note to mother, appreciate the racy touch but don’t wear jeans decorated with metal studs when you know you’re going to fly.
Everyones thoughts turn to breakfast; we’ve got just enough time. My son says that he’ll get his own and rushes off to buy, what is a fairly safe bet, everything I disapprove of. I go in search of coffee for my mother who is unable to function without her daily caffeine fix. I’ve no sooner paid than they announce the imminent closure of our flight. One problem, we have lost my teenage son. He’s not at the designated meeting place and he’s not answering his phone. I send several fruitless texts and position myself at the top of an escalator hoping to spot him from a high vantage point. No joy. It’s like trying to find a field mouse in a zoo. Conscious that my mother’s not going to be able go very fast to the gate, I send her on ahead and start haunting the shops. My son finally materialises and with me yelling instructions over my shoulder, we run flat out, passing startled passengers leisurely being carried forward by conveyor belts.
We arrive at the gate hot and bothered and my recent purchase of coffee, croissant and porridge now a sorry mess inside the carrier bag. Having just done the 1500 metres, the stewardess makes us play a game called force your handbag into your already-bursting-at-the-seams holdall. I contemplate taking her on about this ridiculous rule but I can see from her expression that she’s in a bullish mood; not a battle I’m going to win.
The flight is full and with nowhere overhead to put our luggage, we end up cramming it into what little space remains several isles away. We squeeze into our seats near the back of the aircraft and I am just starting to finally relax, when an enormous man with sweat coating his face comes into view. No, I think, averting my eyes as he takes the seat in front of mine. Please don’t. The back of his chair strains towards me like a lid closing over a coffin. He cannot recline it, I think mutinously, or I will suffocate and die.
My mother, who is in an upbeat mood (coffee has that affect on her), investigates what’s in her seat pouch, pulling out the obligatory emergency landing card and various magazines.
‘What’s this?’ she asks.
‘It’s a sick bag, Mum,’ I say, shoving it back into place. ‘You won’t be needing that.’
Having rushed us onto the plane, the entire cabin crew promptly disembark and we are made to wait almost an hour before the replacement crew appear. Outside, it’s all hail and brimstone. The storm has caused a back-log of queuing planes, we are told, which means suffering a further forty-five minute delay. So much for our early start to France. None of this does anything to dent my son’s holiday excitement who chats with my mother and plays games on his phone, his earlier purchases laid out in front of him like a shrine; there is enough sugar to fuel the aircraft but I don’t spoil the mood by mentioning this.
The plane roars into life and suddenly we’re in the sky. From the window, all I can see is smeared rain. The undercarriage is making grumbling noises which make me think of rusty, broken things – did I mention that I don’t like flying? My mother and I laugh uncertainly but there is an unnerving amount of turbulence. The plane feels flimsy and unsafe, like a boat being buffeted at sea. The first signs of a headache starts to nag.
Ten minutes into our flight, a baby begins to wail. It has a piercing pitch. I glance behind me hoping to see someone dealing with the situation. A slight, rather pretty woman whose husband is sitting with their two young boys on the other side of the isle, is doing her best to calm the baby down but the baby’s not having any of it. This baby is a professional wailer. If it was auditioning for an out-of-key production of La Traviata, it would get the part. Nurofen, I think, scrabbling around in my bag.
The trolley makes its way precariously down the isle and my son, who hasn’t had breakfast and blames me for this oversight, orders a bacon roll. The stewardess tells him it will take ten minutes to cook and offers salted crackers while he waits. The large sweating man asks for a diet Coke (who is he kidding). As he reaches for his drink his seat springs forward like a bird released from its cage and for a moment I am awash with oxygen. Then he sits back again. It’s like being entombed.
I try reading to take my mind off the feeling of claustrophobia and the turbulence which won’t let up but my head is getting worse and I’m now starting to feel sick. I put the book away and close my eyes trying not to listen to the wailing baby or the child behind me who for some inexplicable reason has been given an I-pad and playing really loud games.
The seatbelt sign remains on for the entire flight. I take my life in my hands and go to the loo, clutching onto the back of seats and almost ending up in someone’s lap. Snacks and drinks are quickly cleared away and just when I think they have forgotten, my son’s bacon roll appears.
The plane begins its decent. There is a sudden, violent drop and we take a crazy noise dive. Everyone in the cabin cries out in fear and I do something I haven’t done since I was a little girl; I grab my mother’s arm, bracing myself for the worst. Almost immediately, the plane accelerates skyward at great speed as though released from a missile launcher, only for the engine to cut out and suddenly we are plunged earthward again. Its like being on some awful rollercoaster you can’t stop. Up and down, up and down until my head’s fit to burst. Fighting an impulse to be sick, I glance across at my son to see if he’s okay.
It comes as a shock when the plane finally hits the runway. There is a tremendous roar and a slam of the breaks, propelling everyone forward like rag-dolls.
‘My God, the pilot’s overshot the runway,’ my mother remarks, as the breaks squeal and protest in a cacophony of noise.
Head bent, trying not to focus on anything, I press my hands against the seat in front of me. The baby who has definitely secured the leading role in La Traviata is yelling its head off but I feel too awful to be sympathetic.
‘That was the worst landing I have ever experienced,’ my mother says loudly as we miraculously come to a stop.
A groan is the only responsel I can muster. Never again, I think. Don’t let me anywhere near a plane again.
Out of the window, I catch grey sky and sheets of rain. Great, I think. Really great.
My mother is smiling at me sympathetically. ‘Sick bag?’ she asks.