11.45pm Sunday Night. Madrid.
The first leg of my outward journey has gone smoothly. I reached Madrid intact and on time. I have a long 8-hour stop-over here but even this turns out to be a blessing in disguise. I am very kindly met at the airport by my old schoolmate Will Moreton, then whisked into the city centre in his nice car, then treated to supper in a Japanese restaurant by Will and his wife Marina.
Now I have returned back at the airport, in good time, for the second onward leg of my journey, Madrid to Buenos Aires. I already have my boarding pass, my bags are checked through and, as I make my way safely through passport control, then down to the new underground rail line, I am not arrested, strip searched, hi-jacked or even fooled into acting as an unwitting drugs mule for a major ruthless Colombian cartel. On the contrary, everything is fine.
The new Terminal 4 at Madrid airport is connected to the original terminal by this new, supposedly high-speed line.
It’s midnight on a Sunday and six or seven hundred people wait on the platform. Everyone is tired, each has an expensive, long-haul flight to catch. But after an hour of waiting it gradually becomes clear the train has some sort of mechanical fault. The line is down.
The two Spanish engineers beside me on the platform are on route to an infrastructure project in Angola. The more senior is a tall, handsome man. He is deathly pale because he is- his assistant whispers confidentially-coming down with an appalling virus. It’s true the man looks half-dead. But as a frequent business traveler he’s seen it all before. As an engineer, in infrastructure, he’s professionally scathing about the new terminal in general, and the train in particular.
– “They built the line to speed up passengers, but there’s nowhere for checked-in bags on the train. So the bags still go the old way. So, you zip to the terminal in 10 minutes, but then sit there instead. For an hour. Waiting for your luggage.” There is a significant pause. Followed by:
“…that’s when the train is working”
He shrugs, in a gesture of ineffable, weary contempt.
This is Spain. There are hundreds of passengers flying to South America from Madrid tonight. Huge jets to Lima, San Paolo, and Buenos Aires will wing diagonally down and across the Atlantic through the night. The crowd is getting restless. As late turns to every late, irritation turns to anxiety. Will we now miss our flights? Various airline functionaries emerge to placate the crowd. But nobody can hear them at the back and they just make people angrier. Eventually the news filters back. Our flights will be held up until we board. This is relief, and frankly all I need to hear in order to relax completely. I chat to a fellow Irishman, from Derry, He turns out to be another engineer. He is flying out to improve mine safety in Peru. “In darkest Peru??” (-I am tempted to ask, but just manage to desist.)
Others in the crowd are less sanguine about the delay. When another airline functionary tries to soothe the crowd, a group of tough looking Mexicans discuss killing him on the spot. I’d love to claim my own lack of ire is down to some cosmic Gandhi-like tolerance or life philosophy. I contemplate writing a bestselling lifestyle guide, espousing my spurious philosophy, complete with mantra. But in truth, the lack of annoyance just reflects the lack of inconvenience. On a long journey, to start a six-week trip, a two-hour delay is nothing. I don’t have another connecting flight to miss. Nor do I have business or family waiting for me. Or family business, for that matter.
No doubt someone on the platform has spent their entire disposable income on this flight and is about to miss the funeral of a beloved parent, outside some remote sheep station, in the foothills of the Andes. No, I emphasize with the would-be lynch mob.
Eventually somebody patches the train up. We all board our delayed flights, roughly two hours after schedule. We are on the plane at last. There is however scant prospect of actually leaving the ground. This aircraft is a moody, competitive type of soul. Not to be outdone by the train, it has now developed a mechanical failure all of its own. Its sits stolidly on the Madrid tarmac, a further 90 minutes.
I take my chance to look about at the passengers. For some reason, no good reason I’d expected fellow tourists. The opposite is true. The aircraft is full of Argentinians going home. In particular there’s an incredible, a slightly depressing amount of young men, teenagers from rugby clubs around Buenos Aires with their group leaders and coaches. The stewardesses look irate and distressed, as rugby balls of various sizes spin and fly through the cabin.
I am initially seated next to one of the youth rugby coaches. I learn there are touring parties on board from not one, but two large Buenos Aires rugby clubs. Each is returning home after a month away in Europe. He tells me he and his colleagues brought over four different age teams, to play host clubs in all four home nations. I try to imagine 120 young Argentine men out on the prowl in Edinburgh, Cardiff, London and Dublin. I am impressed the coach looks so intact.
I ask what host club they played in Ireland. He tells me Navan. I mention that I think, I believe, one of our recent Irish internationals started at that very club. He nods politely, sublimely uninterested.
I consider mentioning, (perhaps even should have mentioned first) that bizarrely I interviewed Filipe Contrempomi, (current captain of Argentina) just prior to his departure for the 2007 World Cup. In that tournament Argentina defied most expectations (although not mine, my views are on record) and they beat both Ireland and France, knocking Ireland out of the World Cup in the process. My interview with Contrempomi may conceivably, have interested the coach, slightly. I shall never know. Someone points out I’m in the wrong seat. We are both spared.
2.55 am. The plane still hasn’t moved.
I have taken my new place in the centre aisle, next to a trio of young Argentine Jewish women. They are returning home from a long trip to Israel, sponsored by an international philanthropic Jewish organisation.
Gamely I ask questions. I gather this is a very generous international philanthropic Jewish organisation. After their visit to Israel the sponsees can open-end their tickets and tour Europe. Understandably they all did just that. My seat neighbour has been to Paris and Prague, London and Berlin.
It’s already clear, before we’ve even left European tarmac, that the Argentinean upper middle classes are well-off. This is apparent in all sorts of ways, but the most eloquent perhaps is the ever-increasing amount of rugby balls now spinning though the air around the aisles. The young men are good looking; confident; gilded youth; scions of the upper middle classes, and other all-sorted cliches.
I reflect that Argentinians, like Kiwis, Aussies and white South Africans, consider themselves at least partially European. Perhaps, like those Antipodeans and South Africans, Argentinians also have a massive chip on their shoulder, about the old Europe their grandparents hailed from. If so, they should hang on to it. This chip is priceless. It is a iron-clad formula for sporting success.
Despite my high regard for Argentine rugby, I wish these young men were on another flight. My sole cultural reference for young-South American-rugby players on-an-aircraft is a film: a film called Alive. In that film the plane, full of young rugby players crashes horribly in the Andes. Half the passengers are killed immediately. The other half are left lost and starving, high in the freezing remote Andes. Several succumb to frost bite and starvation. The few survivors are driven to cannibalism. This film is based on a true story.
So I have several questions. -Has nobody in Iberia airline seen this film? -Why have these young pups been allowed on my flight? (-Surely this is tempting fate.) and finally Does nobody know who I am?
At last some progress. Finally someone, somewhere, decides that plane has been at least partially fixed. On the balance of probability- it should manage the eleven-hour journey across eight thousand miles of desolate empty ocean. (Probably.) They now announce the plane will depart, while we are only three and a half hours behind schedule. The rich Argentine boys cheer and clap sarcastically.
4.15 am Monday: The plane takes off.
Stung by the sarcasm, the pilot proves his bravado by treating his aged jet like a rocket and launching it vertically into the freezing air outside.
I’m used to flying, from an early age, not easily spooked. My father was a keen hobby pilot, so I grew up flying about in little Cesenasa and, later, in Lake-Amphibians ) Not a nervous flyer by any stretch. Nonetheless, the trajectory the Iberia pilot now chooses seems, ambitious. The elderly, overloaded plane does not appear to enjoy it. The engines seem to stutter and chock. Metal creaks and groans. It seems inevitable physics and structural fatigue will soon intervene.
I wonder are the wings also still covered in ice? If so, the trim characteristics will be- in the words of that pilot in Saving Private Ryan- “shot to hell” Yes, I can feel it. Our fate is sealed. Without a shadow of a doubt, the wings will soon shear off. The only question is how we will die? We are still climbing, and so altitude may play a factor. Will the initial impact kill us all instantly, or just the lucky ones? Are some of us fated to burn to death slowly, trapped into our twisted, buckled seats, amid the mangled wreckage?
But you only have one chance to die. Mine will be a brave one. Whatever happens, whatever transpires: I resolve to die with dignity. Screaming like a banshee, defecating with terror.
We are in the air. The plane levels out, at last.
Raw terror releases its icy grip.
People relax, then, almost immediately get bored.
Normally this would be a good time for some in-flight entertainment. But Iberia has eschewed the modern fad of a screen for each seat. Instead there’s one screen for each dozen or so seats and thus, no choice regarding entertainment. You can either watch an appalling Jack Black comedy vehicle (about bird-watching, remarkably) or you can try to sleep.
5.55 am, onwards. During our flight there are three movies in total, each worst than the last. It is too early to sleep. Instead of watching Jack Black, watching seagulls, I read the Sunday Times culture section. There is a long feature about a sculptor I know slightly, and his continuing evolution, following triumph and acclaim at last year’s Venice Biennial. I sigh and move on. But on the books pages the news just gets worse. I see that the wife of a very good friend has reached number one in the non-fiction UK best-seller list.
I am reminded of those immortal lines of Gore Vidal- Every time a friend succeeds, a little piece of me dies.
I look up to see if the film offerings have improved. On the contrary, a new, most unwelcome development is now playing. Incredibly, between movies, the screen defaults to a live feed, from a small frost-proof camera, mounted high in the rear tail fin of the aircraft. This relays, in real time, a view along the full length of the aircraft. The entire aircraft appears, small and frail, alone, shaking and shuddering at breakneck speed, 35,000 feet over the icy Atlantic. The overall effect is hideous.
This may be the worst piece of marketing ever devised, fittingly dreamed up by the people with the worst-ever grasp of psychology.
Stunning really. One hears complaints about airlines. But you couldn’t make this up.
News flash- I sleep. Well, a sort of light doze anyway. I consider this my finest hour. No, honestly. In the circumstances. You never saw the tail camera. Oh, to hell with it. Think what you like.
More Jack Black movies. More light dozing. The plane is presumably somewhere between the west coast of Africa and the east coast of Mexico, Venezuela or Brazil. Possibly all three, although not at the same time.
The plane is still flying south. Progress is being made. Thank God I reflect, as I finally succumb to sleep. Thank God, I don’t have to do everything myself.