All of a Flutter


I am tackling bills at my kitchen table, a regrettable and tedious task which I have been putting off, so when a friend suggests popping over, I quickly agree. Having spent the best part of two hours trying to sort out what I had assumed was a simple matter with British Telecom, I am quickly losing the will to live.

My friend fills the house with his indefatigable energy. Tea in hand, we chat about our respective children, how work is going. He recounts a recent Bear Grylls-like adventure – a common occurrence in his life. Often reckless, they involve throwing himself out of helicopters to ski lethal black runs, or flying to the continent in a microlight. I say microlight but that conjures up an image of an actual aircraft. Having once foolishly agreed to go up in one with him, a more accurate description would be of a lawn mower with wings. This is a man with more lives than Henry VIII had wives. I don’t count myself so fortunate.

We’ve been talking for about an hour, when a distant tapping sound presents itself. I’d heard it earlier while deep in bills but paid it no head. This time I tune into the sound, trying to work out where it’s coming from.

I peer up at the glass atrium. Perhaps it has started raining? It’s been threatening to all morning. But no, the glass is dry. I soon convince myself that the sound is coming from inside. At this point, my friend joins in the investigation, placing his ear near to the fridge but almost on cue the sound stops. We stand still for a moment listening to silence then get bored of the task and resume chatting. I make more tea, unearth a half eaten cake which has somehow escaped the predatory eyes of teenagers, and have just divided up the remains, when the tapping returns.

‘Listen. Can you hear that?’ I ask, squinting up at the lights: an electrical issue perhaps.

‘It’s definitely coming from this end of the room.’

Tantalisingly, the sound comes and goes. We stop talking so we are ready for it and sure enough it starts again. It’s like the noise an I-Pad keyboard makes, a mid tone, rat a tat tat sort of a sound. We are mystified.

Finally, after much investigating, we narrow our search to the cupboard next to the Aga.

‘D’you think something’s in there?’ I ask, tentatively. My friend bends down to open the cupboard door, then almost immediately shuts it again.

‘What?’ I ask, alarmed by the speed in which he does this. He looks suddenly pale. ‘What’s in there?’

‘A bird,’ he says faintly.

I wait for him to add details but from the look on his appalled face, he doesn’t need to.

‘How the hell did it get inside there?’

I am both bemused and unsettled. There is a vent that leads from the Aga to the outside wall via the cupboard but even an insect would struggle to find its way inside it.

And then there is this discovery – life is full of surprises – that my Bear Grylls, outdoor adventuring friend, is about as keen on birds as Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s infamous thriller. He admits as much and though he tries to disguise it, now wears the look of a condemned man.

A plan is formulated. First, we open all the windows as wide as they will go, then prop open both doors. I don’t mind birds – except for the crows that occasionally set up shop outside my bedroom window and drive me to distraction with their incessant cawing – but my friend’s alarm is contagious. As I run upstairs in search of a sheet, my imagination goes into over-drive. I picture one of those Game of Thrones ravens released from its confinement. In my fantasy, it takes on the size of an eagle, flying around my kitchen in a state of panic, blindly banging into walls, pecking at my head with its massive beak and spraying excrement over the work surfaces. Make a massive mental note to remove everything in sight before we liberate the beast.

I return to the kitchen brandishing the longest sheet I can find and a towel to mop up with but which I am tempted to tie around my head as protection (memories of a holiday in France when a bat got caught up in my sister’s hair, looms large). As instructed, I hold the sheet wide like a screen. The hope is that this will encourage the bird towards the window.

For a moment we wait in great suspense. Then my friend says,

‘Ready?’ Taking one for the team, his hand hovers nervously over the cupboard handle.

‘Ready,’ I say in a voice that lacks conviction, watching with one eye shut.

He makes two attempts to pull free the door before, suddenly, it is open. Immediately, something darts out through the open window. When it is clear that nothing else is going to follow, we move to the window and look outside. Three feet away, a robin is perched on a low hanging branch, a tiny red blush against a green backdrop. It looks frail but untroubled by its recent confinement. Like a chorister settling into a church pew, it opens its mouth and sings as if announcing its arrival to the world. You have got to be kidding, I think. I turn to my friend who gives me a very sheepish look.

Neither of us say a word.


Fasten Your Seatbelt


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.