Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Burning Bridges

At Sunday's workshop, Internal Combustion, we did a group exercise in which we constructed a story. (More about the workshop and exercise here.  No, hang on - here!  No, wait, let me try again - that's it - HERE!)

We selected three words: a profession, an object and a location, and tried to make a story out of them.  The three words were: pilot, match and field, and after some discussion we came up with the sentence:  The pilot lit a match and lit the trail of fuel that leaked from the fuselage of the plane. (The exact wording may have been slightly different but this was the gist of the thing.)

We further explored our assumptions about pilots.  They are assured, we concluded, authoritative, physically competent, charmers (as opposed, please note, to charming).  But they can also be lonely and, perhaps, drunken.

We took one quality - coolness or assuredness - and as part of the exercise chose its opposite: panicky, hysterical as a quality we wanted in our character.

The sentence gave rise to certain questions: what is the pilot doing in a field?  How did the plane get there?  Why is he setting fire to it?

The task then was to write the story of a panicky pilot setting fire to an aeroplane in a field.  We had twenty minutes to come up with something and this is what we came up with:

Anyway, here is the story we came up with, written up a bit by me.

Burning Bridges

Bridges’s hands shook.  These hands that had steered thousands of passengers in safety, at heights impossible to imagine, in machines incomprehensibly heavy, over huge expanses of rock and ocean, fluttered and shook like epileptic butterflies.

He couldn’t light the match.  He had years of experience in managing his nerves, months’ worth of hours clocked up, the highest possible degree of training in handling great enormous cages of finely engineered machinery, and here he was, hands trembling, unable to perform the simplest feat of technology, the one that cavemen had mastered, the one that predated the wheel probably, the definingly primitive act of lighting a fire!

He roared in frustration and scared a bird that rose from the cornfield and took to the sky above the rusted form of the old crop duster.  The beating of its wings filled the air and the pilot took a deep breath and tried to calm himself.

When his cousin had told him that he owned a plane, he should have known he meant this flying lawnmower.  Well he might not be able to light a match but if Cousin Erik could get that thing into the sky he could, or he deserved what was coming to him.

But first he needed to calm down. He needed to smoke.  He had not smoked for three days.  He was used to suppressing the need on long-haul flights, but on a long haul flight to Singapore or Melbourne you were alone in the sky.  You did not have your family in the cockpit: your father resentful and your mother tearful and your brother framing his failure to leave home as some sort of moral imperative, and weeping over his fat, sweet natured, almost unbelievably brainless wife.

It had been as depressing as he left it, the men useless in the face of grief, the women in sweaters with kittens.  When it transpired that he had no suit for the funeral, they found him one from Terry’s prom, a hideous thing made from a patented synthetic fabric.  But at least it was black; it could easily have been powder blue, and nobody would have seen anything funny about that.

That Delia had been killed by a hairdryer in the bath should not have been surprising. That Bridges should have said so at her funeral seemed madness.  But some part of him understood that he must never come home again, that if he did he would hate himself for it. 

When he left, his cockiness had seemed a thing of youth.  He thought of the crocheted toilet-paper holder in his parents’ house and he could smile, as he surveyed the continents laid out below him, at the impetuous lad who had cursed his cosy hometown and the smallmindedness of his kind dull family.  

In the years since, he had developed a nostalgia for the place, an easily assumed humility and fondness for the summer days whose endless skies in that flat country had engendered his dreams of flight.  When he occasionally encountered, in the bar of some pilots’ lounge, or some hotel, others from the same rural state, he had reminisced about counties and parishes whose names were talismans from childhood. 

He should have known better.  As soon as he returned to the flat expanse of green corn, as soon as he saw that crocheted Spanish dancer with the prudish sanitary secret under her skirts, he was disgusted; as if the life of the fields was a festering thing, endless miles of it, horizons stretching beyond horizons, and the blank mindlessness of his family as oppressive  and open and flat as the land that held them.

He had to burn his bridges.  It was a matter of life or death.  That was the only explanation.

He grabbed his wrist and held his arm tightly to his side as he walked towards the crop duster across the field.  He counted his breaths, he measured his paces to calm himself.  If he could control his breathing, he could light a cigarette; he could sigh, relax, and get away from here.  He had done it once.  Now all he had to do was run away from his immediate guilt, which was much easier than it sounded, he knew.

He didn’t feel bad about his sister-in-law, or his cloyingly unhappy parents, but he felt a twinge of guilt for the brother Terry who would never forgive him. However, it was the price to be paid for freedom, and he was glad that he would be making his escape in an aircraft, even if it was Erik’s ridiculous old crate.

Perhaps he should not have shot the dog, but nobody else was going to.  For country folk they had a sickeningly sentimental attitude towards an animal who was obviously, or at least probably, or at the very least possibly very sick.  It had to be done.  Still, he should have made sure the children were out of earshot, and that kill was a clean one.  Normally he was a good shot, his eyesight was perfect, his hands were professionally steady, his judgement when dealing with emotionally overwrought people was cool, authoritative, reassuring.  So something in him, something unconscious had made him produce the bloody mess of fur and howling that had sent the children into hysterics and brought his sister and her husband from the house to chase after him with threats of violence.  It was a need to escape from here and never come back, and that is why he had taken his brother’s car, why he had fled down a labyrinth of country roads rather than ever apologise or explain.

They were close by, Lorraine and Ray.  Bridges knew he had brought this upon himself and it was this thought that finally calmed him.  He was, he reflected, in some way unknown even to him, in control.  He had not wanted to hurt his brother but he needed a clean break.  He thought about his sister-in-law, flabby in body and mind as he had said at the graveside. Actually he had done Terry a favour.

He mastered his hands, even as the sound of his sister’s car clattered into earshot. What would they do with him if they caught him?  They had probably not even thought that far ahead.  In any case it was immaterial, because they were not going to catch him.  He pictured them waddling into the field as fast as their anger could carry them, just in time to see him take off into the sky, to freedom. 

(Since things, the theft of a crop duster was technically an act of terrorism.  Would Erik back him up when Bridges claimed that he had given him the machine?  Possibly.)

His hand was firm.  He removed the book of matches from his pocket.  Hilton, it said, Zurich, and Bridges smiled. He looked up with a sort of friendly authority at Erik’s old rustbucket.  Now, old thing, let’s see about getting you up in the air.  Right on cue Lorraine’s battered truck chugged into view, a long distance across the enormous field.  She got out and he could make out her fat figure with its ridiculous sweater barrelling towards him, her husband, lean and tall, overtaking her as he charged towards the crop duster.

He didn’t need the cigarette now, but he had time for a couple of drags before he left this place forever.  He took one from a box in his breast pocket. He could hear his brother-in-law calling his name, squawking at him.  He struck a match with a swift firm stroke and set it to the tip of the cigarette.

The match fell unostentatiously into the green corn.  Bridges approached the ancient flying machine.  He cursed as he saw a gaping gash in the fuselage.  It would take hours to get it fixed, and his relatives were approaching.  His brother-in-law was violent.  His sister was furious.  He cursed Erik, and the green fields and the small people and he turned to face his brother-in-law whose loping form was drawing near with speed.

Whatever happened now it would still be a clean break.  He would hit or be hit.  He would not forgive and he would not be forgiven.  He had lost his moment of glory, but his purpose was firm.  Fine.  Let them come.

It took barely a moment for him to think all this, and while he was thinking the match had fallen to the ground.  He would never have been stupid enough to drop a lighted match into a dry cornfield, but the corn was green and a light evening dew was already coming down.  The tiny match-flame flickered, and nosed about like a dog looking for a scent.  Aha – petrol!  It sniffed its way towards the sharp smell, flared its way along the remainder of the matchstick, and pounced.

Well! Although Bridges had seen the hole in fuselage, and even though he had steadied his hand sufficiently to light his cigarette, there must have been some part of him still flustered and flummoxed from his trip back home because you don’t need to be a pilot to know that it is the height of folly to drop a naked flame where combustible substances are around. The match’s flame took to the trail from the crop duster and, in less time than it takes to tell, it had engulfed the old machine and the trickle of fuel that had made its way onto Bridges’s clothes. 

He didn’t even really have time to think before the flames began to consume the synthetic fibres of his suit.  He dropped his cigarette, and flailed blindly at the line of orange flame that coursed its way up his leg, up his torso, all over his clothes. He felt wet before he felt hot, and he smelled the burning of his clothes before he felt it on his skin.  Although he screamed loudly, it was more bewilderment and confusion he felt, as the rickety old plane behind him exploded and blew his body apart, than pain, and he was never certain if it was anger or alarm that distorted Ray's face as his lanky brother-in-law lolloped over the cornfield screaming.

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