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To The Ground
Stuart Henderson

It is, Stefan realises, the tiredest of clichés. Akin to a love of disco music and sex in public toilets: both of which he shuns because above all things he fears conforming to stereotype. He knows -- because younger friends and students have told him so -- that it is now fashionable to once again embrace stereotypes, champion them even, but he isn't about to do what he isn't comfortable with. And yet, and yet. Just because picking up an air steward has been done to death, doesn't mean it should never be done again. And when the steward is as gorgeous as this one, and literate too, leaning over to comment on the book of Nabokov stories resting on Stefan's lap, what else can Stefan do but lift his head and look at the blue-uniformed figure with barely-contained lust?

"He's my absolute favourite writer," says the steward, pouring Stefan a glass of orange juice. He is tall and slender with a broad smile and cropped black hair. He is also, Stefan guesses, not more than twenty five years old.

"Have you read Lolita?," the steward asks.

Stefan nods, the smile unshifting.

"And Pale Fire?"

Stefan nods again, sips at his orange juice, says "That's his best, in my opinion."

"Really?" says the steward. He is momentarily statuesque, empty bottle in hand, thinking this over. Then he smiles down on Stefan, promises to return later, and moves on. Stefan watches him sashay his way down the aisle. Then he glances past the stern middle-aged woman to his left, at the sun-lined clouds outside the window.

He is on a flight to London, returning to England from a Cultural Studies conference in New York. The conference has, by and large, been a success; his paper on the music-hall tradition well-received. As he queues at the baggage check-in, the professor who invited him over suggests that his academic career is, if Stefan will pardon the pun, about to really take off. It has been some time since he has felt this present in his life. Seven months ago he separated from his lover (as if lovers was all they were!), Max. Soon after their ninth anniversary, the problems -- harsh, irreparable problems that they could never have foreseen -- emerged, and little more than six months later Stefan was moving out. They parted as amicably as was possible; Max saying that he would be in touch when he felt more settled. That was January. It is now July and Max hasn't called, the only communication between them being lawyers' letters regarding the sale of what used to be their flat.

In what seems like seconds the steward has returned to Stefan's side. He announced his name to all on board during the safety demonstration (Still in Stefan's mind: an image of the steward stretching out his arms, Christ-like, to indicate the emergency exits to his left and right, the biceps pushing at the navy-blue cotton of his shirt sleeves.), but Stefan cannot remember it.

"Can I get you something else to drink?" the steward asks, "The white wine isn't too bad considering it comes in a screw-top bottle."

"Perhaps I should wait until the lunch arrives," Stefan says, "I don't want to overwork you." Stefan injects his words with a hint of playfulness, but isn't sure the steward has noticed.

"Lunch's heating up now," the steward says.

Stefan looks at his watch: it is 11.45 in London, meaning much of New York has still to wake up.

"I'll bring the wine with your dinner," he says before disappearing once again.

Stefan isn't sure he likes this intermingling of flirtatiousness and servitude: should someone with the intelligence to appreciate Nabokov really be forced to make a living like this? He finishes the story he's reading, a mournful tale involving a man observing his ex-wife at a piano recital, then hauls himself from his seat and heads towards the toilet. Before he reaches the cubicle he meets the steward again.

"The food's on its way," he says with a cheerfulness bordering on the obscene. Behind him Stefan can see the kitchen area, where two stewardesses are pulling trays from a wall of silver that looks more like a filing cabinet than an oven.

"You know," says the steward, "if you're not rushing off anywhere maybe we could go and have a drink when we get back to London. I'd like to talk about Pale Fire with you."

Stefan hesitates for a moment, startled by the steward's directness. Then he pulls himself together, reminding himself that this is what he wanted.

"I'd like that too," he says, "although maybe we should see how our body-clocks are faring once we've landed." Stefan wishes he could retract this note of caution as soon as it has tripped from his lips, the worst thing he can be now is ponderous, but the steward seems satisfied enough with this response.

"Good," he says, then "Great," then silently he turns sideways. Understanding, Stefan does the same, and as they move past each other their bodies brush lightly together like two leaves in a breeze.

In the cubicle Stefan examines his face in the mirror. Solid enough, he thinks, the eyes and cheekbones enough to remind him of how it looked when he was twenty-five. Then he stands back so that most of his body is visible in the mirror, and pulls his penis out of his trousers. It is slightly engorged from his brief contact with the steward. He pulls the foreskin fully back then rubs his hand up and down it a few times. Before things go too far he stops: he isn't in the mood to deal with the mess or the empty, unsatisfied feeling that follows. Instead he rinses the head in the sink and tucks it away. Closing the toilet door behind him, Stefan is sure he can hear laughter coming from the kitchen area.

When he gets back to his seat his dinner is already on the tray. Next to it is a miniature green-glass bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, and underneath that is a note, a scrap of lined paper that reads:

If you want to share a real bottle of wine, I'll wait

at the bureau de change in the baggage hall.



Daniel. Of course this is his name. Stefan looks over the note a few times, then folds it neatly in half and slips it into his trouser pocket.

He is not far into a dream when the turbulence starts. His body is jerked backwards and as he opens his eyes he finds that the safety-belt sign is back on. There is another, alarming jerk downwards. The stern woman to his left gasps. Outside the window, the clouds have lost their sun-drenched glow; they have turned charcoal grey and gathered like an angry mob around the plane. Stefan turns to face forward again, struck by the reverent hush that has spread throughout the cabin. It's nothing, he thinks, nothing worth worrying over, just some disagreeable air-pockets. Then all the lights go out and from various corners of the plane Stefan can hear whining. A couple of people scream.

Soon the pilot's voice is on the intercom, telling everyone to remain calm. Yes, the standard power supply has been affected by the storm, but essential equipment is functioning, and they should be through the worst of it within the next half an hour. He thanks everyone for their patience, tells them once again to stay calmly seated, and then is gone. In the dim glow of the emergency lighting, Stefan closes his Nabokov collection and tucks it under his thighs. It would all be so much easier to relax if he could read. The plane shudders and a rattling sound fills the cabin. Then they plunge downwards, Stefan's stomach rising up inside him like a ball pushed underwater then released.

"Oh," says the woman to his left. She claps one hand to her mouth and ransacks the pocket in front of her with the other. A gulping sound comes from somewhere inside her and her cheeks fill like a balloon. Stefan grabs the sick bag from her hand, shakes it open and offers it hurriedly up to her mouth as her cheeks deflate and the vomit gushes out in three violent lurches. The plane is still rattling.

As Stefan secures the freshly-filled sick bag under his seat (what else is he supposed to do with it?), he hears hurried footsteps coming from behind. Looking round he sees Daniel, face sweaty and pale, storming down the aisle towards him. Stefan waits for Daniel to stop and tell him that everything will be fine, but instead the steward charges past; a flash of blue in the murky light, soon engulfed by the darkness at the end of the cabin. Dazed, he stares down into the emergency strip lights, which snake down on either side of the aisle like, well, like nothing so much as a major road seen from the air at night. Stefan smirks grimly at this; the view from a plane within a plane. If he ever sees Max again he will tell him this and Max too will smirk, Stefan is sure of it.

He wonders how Max, a nervous passenger at the best of times, would be faring if they were up here together. Max would be clutching at Stefan, his long, slender fingers curling themselves round Stefan's thigh, maybe even burying his head in Stefan's shoulder. With Max's ear so close to his mouth, Stefan would probably feel the need to say something. Whispering, he might recite some Christopher Isherwood, or the words to one of their favourite Billie Holiday songs. He'd tell Max about what they'd do when they got home; how they'd make coffee and hold each other on the sofa watching a movie. And as the plane shook, just as it was doing right now, Max's breath would deepen and warm the space underneath Stefan's ear until both of them were staring through the darkness at the evening ahead of them and the day after that and beyond into their indefinite future.

Slowly, Stefan lifts his head away from the lights and onto the juddering seat-back. He blinks several times before letting his eyelids fall. The light from the aisle-floor persists, multiplied by his retina to become a sea of blinking orange; a throbbing, dazzling city seen from far above.

When he wakes it is all over. They are making a calm, measured descent into Heathrow, rays of late-afternoon sun filling the cabin, the pilot's low voice apologising for the discomfort they may have experienced. The woman next to him, her hair swept back over her head, touches his arm and thanks him for his earlier chivalry.

"You must have been pretty tired to have slept through that," she says. Stefan can only agree.

In the baggage hall he looks for Daniel. He is where he said he would be, to the left of the nearest Bureau de Change, looking down at his feet. There is something forlorn about this figure, Stefan thinks; the way he stoops slightly in the hazy light, the way he acknowledges not one of the people that pass him until Stefan approaches and he straightens himself, asking "So how is your body-clock?"

In the taxi Daniel suggests a bar they could go to in Kew, not too far from his flat. If Stefan wanted, they could stop at Daniel's flat on the way and leave their bags there while they have a drink. Stefan nods at this, too numb to do anything but acquiesce, and Daniel takes his hand, gently at first then more decisive, pinning his fingers to the leather seat as if afraid Stefan will jump from the moving car given half a chance.

Once their plans are made they have little to say to each other. Stefan supposes it is his turn to take the lead, but as the taxi speeds down the motorway his head remains empty. Talking would be an added bonus, but it's far from the point.

They never make it to the bar, of course. Stefan doesn't even know if it really exists and, since he wasn't really listening when Daniel mentioned it, he'll never know for sure. He is in a daze until he hears the taxi drive away, realises that this is it. They have climbed a flight of stairs, gone through two heavy glass doors and entered Daniel's flat. They are standing on the cream carpet that lines the hallway, their cases standing between them, with Stefan wondering what is supposed to happen next. It's been so long. Do they talk or drink coffee or --- but now Daniel is taking hold of him, dragging him by the sleeves of his blazer into the next room and down onto a sofa overloaded with plush cushions and a throw that comes down around them like the curtain falling on some cheap vaudeville act. Daniel is on top, smothering Stefan with his face and neck and chest. They are rubbing their bodies together like they did on the plane, but harder, faster and over and over until Stefan can feel his cock pushing against his trouser leg. As they find a rhythm, their kisses and touches repeating, Stefan's mind drifts. And, as Daniel sits up to remove his top, for the first time in a long while Stefan finds himself thinking about death. Strange that what he sees is not a world without him, but him without it: a vast nothingness with only him to fill it. He wants the thoughts to stop but they won't. And then, just as he envisions the falling away of everything he has ever known, Daniel pulls him back close. Stefan looks up and sees the steward's lips part and close and part again. You don't need to look down, he's saying, with all this here to distract you.




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