My friend Harvey liked the exotic. I was reminded of this when, flying to Malaga, our plane had to head for an emergency landing at Toulouse.
We must have been over the Bay of Biscay – I could see water on the starboard side – when a passenger stood up and pointed to black smoke streaming from one of the engines.
Almost immediately the First Officer came on and said there was a bit of bother and that we were diverting to the nearest airport as a precaution. Nothing to worry about, he said.
This delegated act by the captain was obviously meant to avoid any increased panic: ‘Routine, old boy; just tell them what’s up and I’ll get this crate down on the tarmac’. While everyone was not worrying about it but, just in case, praying to a God they’d hitherto rejected as an irrational construct, it was the pre-flight safety display that ran through my mind, not because it had suddenly become relevant but because my friend Harvey wanted to go to bed with a stewardess in a yellow life jacket and pull her ‘INFLATE’ cord.
He didn’t say it like that, but always tried to implicate you in his fantasies. ‘Have you ever thought what it would be like to…?’ No-one ever had, but he asked all the same. Since then, tainted with the rash of complicity, I’ve never been able to watch these displays without a shiver of pleasure, believing that the gender-specific stewardesses, later disguised euphemistically as ‘stewards’ then ‘cabin staff’, were engaged in a demonstration for our pleasure not our safety.
That they go through these motions in silence while an anonymous male voice-over speaks the instructions only serves to give the demonstration a Svengali charge. I especially think of Harvey on late flights, when the demonstrators’ composure has been shaken by fatigue – Malta and back, say, then Brindisi and back, a night flight to Amsterdam in overtime – and a pig’s tail of black hair has absconded from her regulation slash-back to bounce on her forehead, however much she blows northwards to keep it out of her eye. (Actually, that vertical puff raises the arousal stakes.)
Harvey was more forthcoming. All those attachments, he drooled – the oral tube dust cover, the oral tube itself, the crotch strap, the buckle, the light lamp, the whistle, the retro-reflective tape. If he could have engineered a mask to fall from the ceiling at a strategic moment and dangle above the pillow, the scenario would have been almost complete.
And completion might have been achieved if the regulation uniform was ever so slightly ill-fitting and, unknown to the wearer and beyond the tact of any passenger to point out, one of her buttons had come undone to reveal a smidgen of black reinforced lace in the mid-thoracic region. Harvey always flew easyJet: Easy. Jet; it seemed to guarantee that fantasy’s exegesis should be swift and trouble-free.
We soft-landed at Toulouse as though France had seduced us away from Spain, and were lifted towards Malaga on a replacement flight, bathed in regret through clouds of bathos. But Spain, as always, was OK.
‘Have you ever fancied an older woman?’ Harvey once asked, presumably having given up on trying to date a budget airline stewardess let alone persuade her to smuggle a life-jacket out of her overhead cabin. (What other mechanical goodies did she store in there, Harvey wondered.) I told him it depended on what he meant by an ‘older’ woman.
‘You know,’ he said. ‘A woman who’s clearly much older but whose younger, attractive self is scarcely beneath the surface and still throb-throb-throbbing along.’
I found myself sitting next to her on a flight to Berlin
As it happened, I had; but I didn’t let on, because all Harvey’s ‘Have you…?’ enquiries were rhetorical. Coincidentally – which is the reason for writing about him – I found myself sitting next to her on a flight to Berlin. easyjet again. Easy. Jet. While boarding, she was blocking the aisle in her struggle to position a suitcase in the overhead rack. Both her black bolero jacket and skirt were rising and falling as if in a comic demonstration of gravity, and at one point the side chevron of her blouse joined in to reveal one of those areas of skin dieticians pinch with a large forceps to assess body fat. I realised there’d be very little in her case and noticed that the revealed portion was skeined with a blue gossamer network, like a map of a river delta or the finest of body tattoos. It was the briefest of glimpses.
I took charge in one of those tacit acts of assistance, stashed her suitcase next to my holdall and watched her duck as she moved into the window seat next to me.
She wriggled into place, smiled, and said: ‘Piggy in the middle.’
I chuckled, swallowing the expression ‘Story of my life’, which had rolled to the tip of my tongue ready for its own take-off. At the same time, we both reached for the in-flight magazines in their respective pouches.
‘Great minds,’ she said.
Her hands, elegant and deftly-manicured, were buckled with veins, like the hither-thither trails of hard-won experience. At this point, had I been relating my story to him, and had he assumed there were intended consequences, Harvey would have deployed his best English to ask, ‘In what did her experience consist?’ The passenger to the right was younger than me, already strapped in and poring over some complicated diagram on his tablet. He was wearing a white T-shirt with the words TEMPT ME printed on the front in huge letters. Neither Harvey nor I would have travelled to Berlin dressed like that, not even on easyJet; that lower-case ‘e’ was bad enough. Maybe he was German, ein Berliner; impossible to tell, because when the trolley reached us he declined its contents with a dismissive wave.
Again I kind of giggled under my breath. She must have thought my reaction non-committal and a signal that I wished to be left alone. I didn’t rush to disabuse her, even though I wanted to. Harvey and I are really miles apart; only his faux-bravura draws us closer.
I found an article on Berlin. It was illustrated with a picture of Liza Minnelli in stockings, sussies (as Harvey calls them), a basque and a bowler-hat. It was from Cabaret. Obvs.
Although flicking through her copy, she had eyes on what I was reading.
‘Have you seen it?’ she asked.
I must have looked dumb, since she placed a stylish nail-painted finger on the page, exerting light but unmistakable pressure that transferred to my knee. I looked at the back of her hand again: it seemed smoother this time, its features effaced by the appearance of what looked like expensive silver bracelets that had tinkled on to her wrist in the manner of unannounced chorus girls.
‘Oh yes. No. I’m not sure.’
This nonsense was enough for her to give up on me. She replaced her magazine, smoothing her dress kneewards and tucking one leg under her seat.
But perhaps she hadn’t given up after all. She kept her stowed leg in place, revealing the invincible shapeliness of her left, now with three or four inches of inner thigh exposed. She was looking out of the window. She was wearing high heels in what looked like expensive leather and with a metal band at their seat. She seemed to know I was watching her, which I was. She tipped her left foot outwards on the fulcrum of the heel and raised it out of the shoe as a cat arches its back. She, she, she….She was probably old enough to be my mother, albeit one who had given birth to me as a teenager.
When the pre-flight announcements began, she realised her belt was still undone. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her fiddling with it. A child had obviously been seated there and had made the belt impossibly tight. Either in genuine exasperation of calculated helplessness, she froze in mid-fidgeting. It was enough for me to turn and look at her. It was then I knew what Harvey had meant by slow-to-fade beauty, its power enabling it to hold out against the years, certainly without resort to what even she would recognise as hopeless deception. From below the surface waters trying to hide it – as they would when the flood came – she beamed an imperishable and desirable quality
‘I don’t what’s wrong with this thing,’ she said.
I imagined her tone to be part explanation at least of her risen self, proud and still prepossessing among the jetsam of idle and unimportant concerns.
Uninvited, I leant across and took both ends of the belt while she loosely raised her arms in a submissive gesture. At the same time I unhinged the clip mechanism and drew it outwards. The top buttons of her blouse were undone. Her flesh was white, her breasts full and firm, with that tell-tale revision of skin at the top of her cleavage that betokened age, or the coming of age, or the first prospect of age stalled. Was it my imagination or did I catch sight of a bra that I might have associated with a much younger woman, its filigree lace border out of sight and harbouring a secret, a tendency, a wish, an accomplished desire?
‘Thank you,’ she said, with the slightest hint of ambivalence, as if she were uncertain about what she had done, her annoyance clashing with her longing.
It was a clear day, excellent for flying to places on time and without turbulence. The captain announced that we were above the Loire. I strained to see it out of our port window, looking east. Although I had no intention of invading her space, my companion leant back in an unspoken invitation, but without undoing my belt – I always keep it on during a flight – it was impossible to see anything. Staring down on France with an odd look of nostalgia, she described it without addressing me directly: ‘It’s like a silver ribbon, flapping in the wind.’
The Berliner heard her and looked her way, attracted perhaps by her micro-climate of allure and envying, I imagined, my place in its curtilage compared with his beyond its perimeter; or not envying it at all, he being the youngest in a descending order of seniority from window seat to aisle. She crossed her legs with a rasp of her thigh-highs (Harvey had told me about them too, that they were held in place by Minelli-type sussies or were self-supporting, and I noticed that she fingered an invisible band where I assumed the hoop of her stays was located.)
She asked me if I were going to Berlin for business or pleasure
After fishing in her handbag under the seat beyond her for a book, she placed it on her lap, front cover up: Occult Science in India and Among the Ancients. She saw me looking at it. ‘A little light reading,’ she said. I felt sure she expected a response but I wasn’t up to it. She asked me if I were going to Berlin for business or pleasure, excusing herself beforehand for possibly prying.
‘You’re not prying,’ I said, summoning the words but almost forgetting to give a response. She leant forward and cocked her head at me like a schoolteacher smiling encouragement as she waits for a dull pupil to take 18 from 37.
‘Pleasure.’ I uttered the word with little relish.
She nodded approval, but certainly cared for for no further explanation, instead reaching in one of the jacket pockets for a tube of Polos already started. In offering me one, she seemed to enjoy my difficulty in extricating the topmost mint, which involved peeling back the wrapping and the silver foil with a useless left hand and reaching across with my right for a two-fisted attempt. I swear that the Berliner smiled at my discomfiture before she stretched in front of me to offer him one as well. I swear, too, that his deftness in prising his mint one-handed with just thumb and finger and balancing it on the latter was meant to show me up. Did she wink an eye at him? Did he wink at her? I’ll never know.
I helped her retrieve her case on disembarking. She said thanks and stood in front of me in the shuffling exit queue. She replied to the goodbyes of the first officer and chief steward in German. I watched her as she waited for her luggage to arrive on the carousel. Leaving the terminal, I had to walk past a file of cafés, and there she was again in one of them, the only customer, smoking a cigarette with a carton of coffee at her elbow. She saw me and gave a weak, conspiratorial wave, which I returned, before heading off.
Three images of her accompanied me to the taxi rank: the solitary, the intellectual, and (a vindicative nod to Harvey here), the ageing beauty. Oh yes, she was beautiful. I might have added a fourth, for while it was true that I wasn’t in Berlin on business, the pleasure I’d confessed was conditional. It was no pleasure at all really, save that of clinging to the prospect of a smile from my daughter, and that was more fond hope than delight. Marion, a teacher of English as a foreign language, had found herself alone with her small child, my grandson, after her German husband, another Berliner, had walked out. Like father, like daughter, I’d reflected: we were both young when we married and had children – in fact, married because we had a child on the way – and now we were both abandoned. (Harvey knew the guy to whom my wife Polly had flown, and I often wonder if he were aware of what must have been clandestine trial flights.) The fourth image was of the flâneur, following me to my daughter’s dingy Charlotteburg flat.
Fantasy is good at refusing admission to inconvenient reality. So, she entered my room still wearing her flight gear and sucking what I imagined to be another of her Polos. She began disrobing after dropping on her haunches beside me and placing on my lower lip the fingertip that had identified Sally Bowles; this time, though, its long pointed nail was painted black, not red. It pulled my lip slowly downwards and stopped, seeking the sanction for entry, to which I made accommodation. But her finger’s exploration didn’t last long. I couldn’t help noticing that when she got up it wasn’t with an athletic single movement but a weightlifter’s binary one, a split jerk, the two-second interval between them followed by a stretch to the upright aided by a hand on her thigh. I recognised it as part of my mother’s and father’s superannuated repertory of postures that also included a standing stretch with tummy out and both palms pressed into the small of their backs. She walked to the sardine-packed Ikea clothes stand at the far wall and hung up her jacket.
I’d never known sex as theatre before, the actor-audience kind. She undid her blouse and skirt and dropped her underwear item by item, striptease fashion, staying any movement I might have contemplated by placing her roving forefinger on her own lips to keep me quiet and still. There were no sussies, only dark stockings held up by a circle of leather-like stretch material, the thigh-highs. She began crawling towards me but half way along her right arm buckled and she had to recover herself. Kneeling either side of me and throwing back her grey-streaked raven hair (dyed?), she appeared to be inviting approval, or giving me the opportunity to opt out.
I could only guess at her age – sixty to sixty-five? – but I noticed things I hadn’t seen in a woman before: an inverted triangle of flesh in what I later learned from Harvey was the UPZ – Upper Pudenda Zone (he’d possibly made it up) – and above that not so much a thin fleshy tyre of spread as a ring of creases bisected above her appendix area by a scar. There was another, horizontal and longer, scar below her belly-button which itself had absconded below, its descent marked by a circle of fine pleats, as of a piece of cloth pulled through a hole from below. Despite these accretions, for which she offered no excuse, her waist was narrow compared with her hips, so there was a proportionality that must have been secure throughout her adult life. Her breasts were ageless and those of a young mature woman, the nipples priapic above dark tumuli.
In a nimbus of bewitching perfume, she lowered her face towards mine so slowly that I could see her eyes blazing in the midst of depredation, that vanguard army camped in patient expectation of reinforcements; the so-called ‘crow’s feet’ that are nothing like; more of that fine blue tracery, on her cheek now, resembling a gauze visible under permafrost; the shrivelling of skin on her shoulder like river ice scatter-shattering beneath footfall as her hands closed in; and, at last and with perfect timing, the twin polar darks of entry, waving underwater vegetation, a liquid warmth beneath the ice, beneath everything designed to vanquish and turn cold.
It was the kind of experience I might have reported to Harvey, except that now, here, it’s compounded by knowledge gained beyond that timid airport wave. My flight companion frittered into the ether almost as completely as my son-in-law; each was to be replaced, as Polly has been, in her case by someone like my Berlin bedroom spectre, almost as old but not a simulacrum.
Harvey has long moved away, reduced to a virtual ex-mate, an occasional whatsapping presence somewhere out there with the woman his query obliged me to fabricate and, like her, no longer with us in any real sense, except in the person I’ve been with for three years. It’s just that, last month, on a flight to Lisbon with Miriam (for it is she), I was sitting in an aisle seat when the trolley set out, being nudged from tow to row. As it passed and inched away from us, the passenger in the opposite window seat was waiting for something he’d ordered en passant. Cabin-crew leader Sandy (for it was she) bustled towards us to hand it over, occluding the space between us as she bent over to reveal the shapeliest arse I’d seen for a while – in my face, as it were. I wondered, on behalf of the cyberspatial Harvey, if cabin crew ever went commando to relieve the tedium and delusion of having to experience the world from inside a zooming metal cylinder. We all thought Harvey’s problem was an extreme example of our own: most of us having pondered every instance he’d ever raised had probably done nothing practical about it. But theory and imagination go only so far. Their consummation is a journey beyond hankering and expectation to a kind of ecstatic deliverance, a meeting of bodies and minds beyond the claims of flaw and blemish.
I wondered if Miriam’s hand on my thigh at that moment, its bands of gold from a previous union already slipping anchor, meant she was in receipt of the depth or the superficiality of my thoughts as I further wondered if Sandy’s knickerless persona would for Harvey have any use in coitus for the regulation Potable Water Indicator (or PWI).