Long White Cloud
The Scottish Arts Council is proud to present Long White Cloud (doc) by Alan Spence - read more about Alan Spence.
Midlife? she said. So you’re going to live to be, like, 110?
He grimaced and peered at his face in the mirror.
Could be worse, he said, stretching his neck, turning this way and that, squinting. Remember that Orwell quote? At 50 everyone has the face they deserve. Mind you, I was reading the other day, 50 is the new 30. And Joanna Lumley says 60 is the new 40. So 55 is, you know, OK.
Happy birthday, she said. You look pretty good, considering.
Right. Great. Thanks.
She hugged him. Let’s do breakfast. Thing I love about hotels.
The condemned man, he said.
Condemned man? Hearty breakfast?
A week ago as their plane had landed, taxied along the runway, the captain had made an announcement. Welcome to New Zealand. You should now set your clocks back 40 years. That had raised a laugh, a scatter of applause. The captain had continued, The Maori name for this place is Aoteacoa. Land of the Long White Cloud. But some folks call it Land of the Wrong White Crowd. Another laugh, cheers from a group at the back, punching the air.
That’s good, she’d said, isn’t it? Just says it all. The wrong white crowd stomping all over the planet.
She was younger than him, immersed in her own certainties. Her theory was it was all going to end in 2012 with some great cataclysm. Tsunami, asteroid, nuclear holocaust, the detail didn’t matter.
It’s all going down, she said. One way or another.
All in it together, he said. I guess that’s some small comfort.
Part of her scenario was that New Zealand would be the last to go, for reasons geographic and karmic. So here they were. Here they were. They’d taken time off that was due to them, and here they were, halfway round the world and damn their carbon footprint, time was short.
Of course when the time comes, he said, you might be on your own. Fair chance I’ll already be gone.
Don’t say that.
He had a book at home by Dave Barry, American standup, on turning fifty. On the front cover was a disclaimer. And he’s not going to even mention the word prostate. So that was it. Not to be mentioned. It was a scare only, a wake up call. He’d had the all clear. If it did come back he’d kick it. Or it would develop so slowly he’d die of old age, or in 2012.
They’d chosen Taupo because she liked the name, liked the look of the place when she’d googled - the mountains and the lake, the weird geology, the hot springs, sulphur bubbling up through mud. She liked the fact that it was off the railway network and they had to take a bus from Auckland. It was all good.
She knew it was where that young Scottish girl had been killed, a vicious random attack, kind of thing that never happened here. But that was all the more reason to come, to show solidarity, oneness.
It’s like the Bali bombings, she said. Bad stuff happens. We can’t be beat by it. Got to face down the forces of darkness, right?
Those certainties again. What he loved about her.
He’d picked up a leaflet in the hotel lobby. Tandem Skydive. Pictures of beautiful young people grinning at the camera as they hung in mid air, freefalling through space, harnessed to their instructor.
As you leave the aircraft the rush and adrenalin will create an unforgettable experience.
He’d seen it often enough on TV, usually advertising this or that. And in spite of the fear, or because of it, he could always imagine himself, launching out, plunging, then drifting to earth. The nearest thing to flight.
She’d seen him looking at the leaflet. She’d made the call. She’d booked him a dive for his birthday. Today.
It’ll be brilliant, she said. Magic.
You just want me to have a heart attack, he said. Avoid the messiness later on.
You’re horrible! she said, punching him on the arm a little too hard.
No but really, he said. Thanks. I think.
It was cancelled twice because of the weather - the cloud cover was too low. Each time it happened he swung between relief and disappointment. It was a stay of execution, but that just meant he’d have to go through the waiting all over again, unable to concentrate on anything else. The fear was real and deep, but so too was the need to face it down, push himself beyond it.
The third time he called and was told it still couldn’t go ahead, he began to think it wasn’t meant, he was being saved from his own stupidity. He’d been willing, but the fates, the gods, were against it. He finally began to relax, let it go. Then the word came through. The jump was on.
By this time she’d gone out for a walk, couldn’t take the tension. Text me, she’d said, and he did. Typed in aaaaarrrghhhhh!!! Pressed send.
As the bus bumped and juddered out to the airfield, he really did feel like a man under sentence of death, trundled out on a tumbril with the rest of the condemned. The others were less than half his age, two young German girls, an Australian couple, an American boy. They laughed and talked in that too-loud way, overexcited, strung out, pumped up on their own adrenalin.
He looked out the window at folk going about their business, oblivious. A woman pushing a pram. Schoolkids scuffling. An old man crossing at the lights. The bus revved up again. He felt the vibration right up through the soles of his feet. His spine felt electric, cold. The fear churned his guts, the way he’d felt going to the dentist as a child. (Once he’d made it as far as the outside door before his mother and the dentist caught up with him, dragged him back).
He could stop this at any moment, ask the driver to pull over, let him off. He could take a taxi back to the hotel, sip a coffee, read a book. But something in him had to see it through, make the jump.
They passed along by the side of the lake and out beyond the edge of town. The driver was an old hippy with a lank grey ponytail. He’d cranked up his radio, headbanged as it hammered out some ancient trash metal track. Maybe Megadeth. The others kept up their talking, raised their voices over the noise.
It’s awesome, said the Australian boy. Like totally amazing.
Seriously, said his girlfriend. I mean, unreal.
They were talking to the American, who explained this was his fourth jump.
Wow, said the Aussie boy.
Like you just think you’re going to die. And you don’t. You just like fly.
The German girls had fallen silent, looked pale.
It never happens, said the American. Almost.
Almost? She translated for her friend. Fast. Fast nie.
So, manchmal? Sometimes?
I never heard of it happening ever, said Aussie girl.
Maybe like once, said the American, in the whole history of jumping. Like in millions of jumps.
Once? It happened?
In a million.
A reasonable percentage, he heard himself say, and they all looked at him surprised that he’d spoken.
They’d be more surprised if they knew he was quoting Beckett. One of the thieves was saved. It’s a reasonable percentage.
Are you with the company? asked the American. The tandem guys?
No, I’m making the jump. Just like you.
Cool, said the boy. But his look was suspicious, unsure, as if his father - Christ, his grandfather - had taken to wearing baggy shorts, a baseball cap turned backwards, started calling everybody Dude. He’d seen it happen. An embarrassment to all concerned.
Aussie girl smiled. Your first time?
He nodded. It shows, eh?
It’s only our second, she said.
Didn’t put you off then.
There’s nothing like it.
That’s what I figured.
At the airfield he took his time, let the others pile off ahead of him. At the desk they all had to fill in a form, saying they were in good health - a waiver stating they undertook the jump at their own risk. There were options. You could jump from 12,000 feet, or pay more and go from 15,000. You could pay extra again and have the whole thing recorded by a cameraman who jumped at the same time, filmed you all the way down. Selected clips were playing on a bigscreen TV - folk grimacing, trying to smile and give the thumbs up as they plummeted, Blur’s Song 2 on the soundtrack, with its air-punching Woo Hoo chorus.
I got my head checked. By a jumbo jet. It isn’t easy. But nothing is, no.
He went for the basics, 12,000 feet, no video. The girl at the desk looked disappointed. Probably on commission.
It’s not my problem, sang Damon Albarn.
They were led through onto the tarmac and an instructor talked him through the drill. A young guy, kiwi accent, the same age as the others doing the jump.
I’m Alex and I’m your jumpmaster for today. You’ll be given a full body harness and a jumpsuit. These will be custom fitted to your requirements. You’ll also have a helmet and goggles. You’ll be attached to me by four strong points for maximum safety. So all you have to do is relax and enjoy. Any questions?
Relax and enjoy? If I cancel now can I get my money back? What time’s the next bus into town?
He said nothing, just shook his head.
Then something happened, a shift in his awareness, and he felt like somebody else. It was the act of pulling on the jumpsuit, the harness. There was something familiar about it. He put on the goggles, the helmet, and he felt a calmness, an inner strength. His back straightened. He had a momentary image of himself as a kind of kamikaze.
The kind of thing that had happened to him before. Memories that were not his own. Once in Japan, he’d looked at himself in the mirror, seen someone else entirely looking back at him, a Japanese man with the intense gaze of a warrior. Someone else, and yet.
Alex nodded to him. It was time. And now it was a dream as he walked towards the plane, climbed the few steps. He was outside himself, watching. There were no seats. They sat on the floor, holding on. Alex adjusted the harness, clipped and tightened the fastenings, went over the drill again.
You’ll be the last one to jump. You’ll see the others go, one after another. Then it’ll be your turn, you’ll kneel in the doorway, I’ll tap you on the shoulder then push.
The plane taxied, turned, and revved, trundled along the runway, shook and rattled as it picked up speed, then there was that sudden fairground bellyflip as it left the ground.
The ascent felt sudden, the plane flimsy, the space beneath them huge. But the stillness was there, that calm and focus. The others had fallen quiet, apart from the American boy who was still laughing, jabbing the air, shouting Wo! All right!
The Aussie girl looked across, made eye contact.
You’re the last to go?
Are you going up to 15,000 feet?
No, he said, I’m sticking to 12,000. I’m scared of heights.
It took her a beat to get it then she really laughed, grateful for the excuse.
Cool, she said.
He could make the joke, but he really didn’t deal well with heights. Standing too close to a cliff-edge, looking out from a high building, even wobbling on top of a ladder, made his heart thud, his palms sweat. So putting himself through this was a kind of madness.
American Boy was first, had stopped shouting and laughing, kneeled in the doorway, rigid, braced, then gone, and one by one they followed him, one by one pitched forward into space, one by one screamed as they shot backwards and down at what looked like 200 miles an hour, so quick, no time to think, now it was his turn, the last, the fear kicking in now, the rising panic, adrenalin overload, every cell screaming as he looked down and down at this emptiness this nothingness this endless drop opening up beneath him. Too late to go back now, too late to say no. The wee boy he once was, trying to run away, caught at the door, dragged back. But he could do this. He was samurai, kamikaze, and another memory that wasn’t his own came surfacing. Past life or just some old wartime movie he’d seen as a child, but it felt so real. He’d been shot down, bailed out, his chute in tatters not opening as he plunged into oblivion.
And this, now, was actual, was happening. The tap on his shoulder the shove, out into the void, every fibre of him saying no this is mad this is suicide this is dying, then spun and turned and buffeted every which way not knowing up from down not able to catch a breath just plummeting falling then levelling out and suddenly jolted upright as the chute opened and they slowed and floated and drifted, like flying, like a bird catching an updraft, riding a current of air, free.
Alex shouted in his ear. All right?
He laughed and gave the thumbs up. All right!
Top of the world. A huge surge of elation, then immense stillness, taking it all in. The lake beneath them, far below.
I can’t swim! he shouted, and laughed again, manic.
Alex shouted, Not a problem!
Turning and gliding, they were high above the mountains, higher than the birds, higher than a small plane circling. They were so high up they could see both sides of North Island, away to the East and West. Land of the Long White Cloud. The Wrong White Crowd.
Alex tapped his shoulder again, asked if he wanted to steer, and that added a whole other dimension, to feel in control of it, tugging a cord to veer left, another to go right, a carnival chairoplane spin but easy, a great slow arc, descending.
Alex took over again, guided them imperceptibly across the lake, back towards the airfield, down and down. A slight jolt and the last drop, down, the ground rushing up. Knees bent at impact, a couple of steps, stumble-run and stop, back to earth, Alex brisk, unclipping the harness, folding up the chute and turning to grin at him.
You did it!
Legs unsteady, he looked about him, lightheaded, and it all felt unreal, or hyper-real, re-entry, back to earth, back to this, himself, right here in the moment. He was aware of a sudden throb, a deep dull ache below his left knee, down along the shin. Had he jarred it on landing? No, he’d been aware of it all the way down, but it hadn’t registered, hadn’t impinged. In those first seconds, that heartstopping plummet, turned this way and that, arms and legs flailing, he must have clashed legs with Alex. Or maybe Alex had set him straight, righted him, kicked his legs into position. He laughed again as he realised he had no idea, had blanked it out.
OK? said Alex.
Yellow card! he said. Tackle from behind!
Leg’s a bit sore, he said. It’s nothing.
It happens, said Alex. Be fine in a day or two.
Not a problem, he said. The whole thing was mental. Absolutely brilliant.
Alex had to get ready for the next flight, the next jump.
Christ, he said. Puts it in perspective.
No, but you done good, said Alex, and they shook hands.
Crossing the tarmac he saw the others, the American boy, wired and ranting at the Aussie couple, the German girls looking stunned and euphoric. He waved to them and they waved back, cheered.
Then he saw her walking towards him, filming him on her mobile.
Smile, she said.
So you got my text.
Right, she said. aaaaarrrghhhhh!!! Took a bit of working out. Then I figured you’d gone. Got a taxi out here.
I filmed you all the way down. Not the greatest quality. All over the place, and you’re just a wee speck for most of it, and you’re in and out the frame. But it’s something. Hey, I learned some Maori today.
He rere kee. It means taking flight.
He was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion.
You OK? she asked.
Hurt my leg, he said. Think it’s bruised, but it’ll be all right.
Och, she said. Of course it will.
The feeling welled up from deep and he held her close, clung to her for dear life.
Alan Spence © May 2009
About Alan Spence
ALAN SPENCE is an award-winning poet and playwright, novelist and short story writer. His most recent book is the novel The Pure Land (Canongate) which is being translated into some 19 languages.
Glasgow-born, he is based in Edinburgh where he and his wife run the Sri Chinmoy meditation centre. He is currently Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen where he directs the annual WORD Festival.
The inspiration behind the story
My stories often have their origin in something that actually happened - an incident, a memory, something heard. (In this case it was the leap out of a plane at 12000 feet - one of the scariest things I've ever done). It's then a case of finding a voice, letting characters take shape, coalesce round the incident. Then I see how they deal with it, where it leads, and in the process I figure out what the story's really about. (Usually it's mortality, that great resounding bass note that's always present in our lives).